Power user: For agencies, it's Firefox no, OpenOffice yes

John McCormick

Several weeks ago, I wrote a somewhat lukewarm review of Firefox that got a big response from defenders of the open-source Web browser. Thanks for the notes, but my position stands: Firefox doesn't offer enough to make government agencies replace Microsoft Internet Explorer.

But there is another open-source program that I not only like, just as I like Firefox for personal use, but I also think should be in government offices.

I use Microsoft Office daily, but recently Word has begun crashing on my XP system'it's the only application that does. That, along with the incredible feature bloat in Office, led me to download and install OpenOffice 1.1.3.

The 45M file from OpenOffice.org can be downloaded and installed in a breeze'something that can't be said of Office 2003. OpenOffice has a Word-compatible word processor and an Excel-compatible spreadsheet, along with a PowerPoint-style presentation application. It lacks an Access equivalent, some fonts and other features I never use. But it has all the fonts I need, template support, autocorrect, macros, autotext and all the other functions I normally use in Word and Excel. It even imports a lot of customized features from Word. OpenOffice also adds a nice bibliographic database. I even like the user interface better.

After moving files back and forth between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office for a week, I experienced no more problems with OpenOffice than I did with Office.

OpenOffice, not Firefox

Why am I in favor of agencies using OpenOffice but not Mozilla's free open-source browser? That's a fair question, and one most easily answered by starting with my reservations about Firefox.

Remember, when I talk about using these programs in government, I'm not talking about individual users. Rather I'm factoring in the challenges of upgrading and managing thousands of PCs. Because Internet Explorer is free and installed by the operating system, managers need a good reason to install thousands of copies of Firefox. I don't see one.

Firefox's main claim to fame is security, but I never bought into all the hype. Now it turns out the browser has started hemorrhaging vulnerabilities.

Someone is sure to write and inform me that Mozilla promptly patches its problems, while Microsoft usually patches monthly. But Microsoft's release schedule was changed to meet the demands of managers who needed a way to predict when patches would come out so they weren't forced to patch when new vulnerabilities were already widely known.

In other words, the main reason to replace IE with Firefox isn't such a great reason after all.

Microsoft Office is not free. In fact, installing OpenOffice instead of Office can save hundreds of dollars per PC, which should easily pay for any minimal training needed. The process is easier and you never need to worry about software licenses, a significant cost in larger offices.

To be fair, OpenOffice has had some serious vulnerabilities of its own. Nothing that big can ever be perfect. And depending on how you work, you're liable to find things you don't like about OpenOffice. Obviously, some office workers need the massive Microsoft Office suite, but millions of government workers don't, so why pay for it and deal with license hassles? OpenOffice is open-source software worth a look.

John McCormick is a freelance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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