19 January 2006

Time for Mac users to see the OSS light?

The good news just kept on coming in Steve Jobs's recent MacWorld speech: $5.7 million revenue in the last quarter for Apple; 14 million iPods sold during the same period; a run-rate of a billion songs a year sold on iTunes. And of course some hot new hardware, the iMac and MacBook Pro. What more could Mac fans ask for?

How about an office suite whose long-term future they can depend on?

Microsoft may have announced “a formal five-year agreement that reinforces Microsoft’s plans to develop Microsoft Office for Mac software for both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs,” but Mac users would do well to consider the company's record here, as its has progressively shut down its line of Macintosh software. First, it dropped its MSN client, then Internet Explorer and more recently Windows Media Player.

Microsoft has good reason to hate Apple. Steve Jobs and his company represent everything that Bill Gates and Microsoft are not: hip and heroic, perfectionist yet popular. Apple has always been Microsoft's main rival on the desktop, but the appearance of Intel-based Macintoshes will make the company more dangerous than it has ever been. Probably the only reason that Microsoft has kept alive its Macintosh division is that it looks good from an anti-trust viewpoint: “See? We're not abusing our position – we even support rivals...”. The Macintosh version of Office may bring in money, but it's a trivial amount compared to the Windows version, and hardly worth the effort expended on it.

This means that the future of Microsoft Office for the Mac can never be certain. The agreement with Apple might be extended, but knowing Microsoft, it might not. At the very least, Microsoft is likely to ensure that the Windows versions of Office has advantages over the one running on the new Intel Macs – otherwise the incentive to buy PCs running Windows will be reduced even more.

So what should concerned Mac users do? The obvious solution is to move to an open source alternative. An important benefit of taking this route – one often overlooked when comparisons are made with proprietary offerings – is that free software is effectively immortal. Sometimes it goes into hibernation, but when the code is freely available, it never dies.

Just look at the case of the Mozilla Application Suite. The Mozilla Foundation decided not to continue with the development of this code base, but to concentrate instead on the increasingly successful standalone programs Firefox and Thunderbird. Had Mozilla been a commercial outfit, that would have been the end of the story for the program and its community. Instead, some hackers were able to take the old Mozilla Application Suite code and use it as the basis of a new project called SeaMonkey.

A similar desire to get things moving outside existing structures motivated the creation of the separate NeoOffice project, the port of the free OpenOffice.org office suite to run natively on MacOS X (there is also a version that uses the X11 windowing system). As the FAQ explains: “The primary reason that we stay separate is that we can develop, release, and support a native Mac OS X office suite with much less time and money than we could if we worked within the OpenOffice.org project.” This is hardly an option for the Mac Office team at Microsoft; so when Gates and Ballmer give Mac Office the chop, there will be no Redmond resurrections.

It is true that NeoOffice is not yet quite as polished as the versions on other platforms. And maybe Microsoft Office is superior – at the moment. But there is nothing that some hacking won't fix, and with serious support from the Macintosh community (and perhaps even financial help from Apple) any outstanding issues would soon be resolved. The emergence of OpenDocument as a viable alternative to Microsoft's Office formats only strengthens the case for switching to free software.

The wild excitement generated by Steve Jobs's MacWorld announcements is understandable, but also dangerous. Mac users may be so focussed on the hot new hardware as to forget something crucial: that, ultimately, it is the application software that counts. Macintosh enthusiasts should refuse the poisoned chalice that Microsoft is offering them with its generous offer to keep Office for the Mac on life support for a few more years, and instead should channel some of their famous passion into supporting the creation of a first-class, full-featured open source office suite.


Anonymous said...

For how long has KDE for OS-X been available?

Better yet that Mac users switch to http://www.genesippc.com

A 970 based G5 class box will b avilable in May.

Henry Keultjes
Database Scientifics Project http://www.ncolug.org/ppc.htm
Mansfield Ohio USA
hbkeultjes at earthlink dot net

Glyn Moody said...

This seems to be the announcement for KDE on Mac OS X. For more details on how to do it, there's this article.

Anonymous said...

I already have --- been using Moz since way back, TBird and FF as well, and OOo (on winDohs) and NeoOfficeJ (on OS X) ever since they became viable apps (2+yrs ago?).

I use both OS X and winDohs in my job, but I'm working on getting winDohs out of my life altogether. I've been messing with Linux and REALLY enjoying it. I just need to see if Aventail will work on Linux with Win4Lin. Once I have a solution for that, then it's "No m$ stuff for me, thank you."