U of T Scarborough campus makes StarOffice switch

The price was something Philip Wright couldn’t argue with. When Sun Microsystems offered the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus StarOffice for free, the director of computing and networking services snapped it up despite the fact that Microsoft makes Office available for students at $93 plus tax.

The campus deployed the Sun version of the OpenOffice.org application on about 500 workstations that are used by some 10,000 people. The university also gave away 3,000 CDs of StarOffice to students and made it free for them to download.

“People wondered why we were doing it,” Wright says. Some thought if the university wasn’t offering Microsoft, it wasn’t offering the best in the market, he said.

The university, which deploys Firefox as its browser and Thunderbird as its e-mail client, saved about $53,000 when it switched from Microsoft Office to StarOffice. Also, as a result of the switch to Mozilla, there’s been fewer security issues, Wright says.

However, some staff members at U of T had concerns. Not all of them converted to the open source desktop suite. Some were concerned about lack of features, Wright says.

“StarOffice doesn’t have a solver, so we installed Excel for those that need the functionality.”

Others needed PowerPoint for the same reasons.

Some of the staff at U of T, were also concerned about compatibility. Not all Microsoft documents look the same when opened in StarOffice.

“But this is true of different Microsoft releases,” Wright says.

“Everyone aims to make themselves compatible,” says Sun’s Markham, Ont.-based Lynne Zucker, director of education and research.

She admits, though, that this isn’t always successful.

However, users can save documents to PDF ensuring that they will look the same in any office suite, she says.

Compatibility is something users should be concerned about, says Al Gillen, research director for system software at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

“Rendering a document identically in two different applications is challenging.”

But when it comes to using the software, the StarOffice’s look and feel isn’t that different from Microsoft’s, Wright says. As a result, most of the students adjusted to StarOffice very quickly, he says. The U of T help line doesn’t get many calls about it.

Sun released StarOffice 8 late last month. The suite is based on the OpenOffice.org suite. It’s something Wright will definitely look into and begin doing some tests on.

The latest version is designed to improve import and export of Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, as well as password-protected Word and Excel files and presentations with complex animations, Sun says. It runs on Linux, Windows and Solaris.

 The ability to support all three was important to U of T, says Wright, as the university campus has a mixed OS environment.

Linux is definitely making positive progress as a client operating system, Gillen says.

“However, it has a long way to go before it challenges Microsoft’s dominant share. How that progression takes place is dependent upon both how Linux matures, and how Microsoft competes with Linux on the desktop,” he says.

Gillen says there’s more to consider than the costs of acquiring a Linux desktop. “l would argue that the cost of Linux is not necessarily the deciding factor when choosing Linux as the desktop OS.  Yes, the acquisition cost of Linux is lower than Windows, but where the major software costs come from are not at the OS level, but rather at the layered software level.”

Migrating from Windows to Linux also involves some application replacement, which means some investment is required, he says. “If the TCO benefit is not dramatically lower, it becomes hard to pay back the migration costs.”

Having heterogenous environments is another added expense, as it’s difficult for companies to completely eradicate Windows from their environment, he says.

“Just ask companies that have tried to totally eliminate Windows.”

Many of the features users need on office applications are there today in open source versions, Gillen says. “However, most users have more needs than just office application functionality.” Users also need financial management, software, games, mapping software and software to synch up PDAs and phones, to name a few examples.

“All those applications need to be available for the average user to see a movement to Linux as having no negative impact on their desktop experience.”

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