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News

Trying to sell open source

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you can cut corners. Simon Brew looks at an earlier attempt to sell open source software in a box…

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Simon Brew is an ex-editor of Linux User & Developer magazine

You ever hear of a package called OOoFf? I think I’m remembering the capitalisation of that correctly, but were the whole thing forgotten, I’m one of the many who wouldn’t be shedding too much of a tear. OOoFf stood for Open Office.org .

Firefox, and the clumsy acronym was front and centre of a retail package that appeared on sale in UK stores many years ago. It was, basically, an attempt to take the qualities of the OpenOffice office suite and the Firefox web browser, and to make a few quid off the back of them. What could possibly go wrong?
The problem was that you could tell a mile off that this was shovelware in the extreme. There’s an argument for positioning OpenOffice in some low-cost retail package, simply to get it onto software shelves next to the far more expensive Microsoft Office (plus a small charge should also allow for quality support to be provided). Given the pricing that’s been announced for the latest iteration of MS Office – over £400 a seat for the most expensive version – there’s real merit in that idea. Yet when OOoFf arrived, bringing together two champions of the open source software movement in one box, it was pretty clear that it was never going to work. Sadly, it failed thanks to its enforcement of assumptions that many people still retain with regards to open source.

The main problem was that it was so sloppily put together; it felt like the day when Ronnie Rosenthal missed an open goal by smashing the ball against the crossbar. All this product needed was a solid menu system to hinge things together, and a printed manual. That’d at least justify sticking it in the box in the first place, and overcome the false perception that open source is somehow trickier. Yet it got neither. Instead, a nasty path of hunting down executables was required – a right royal pain for the casual user that this package was supposed to attract – and the only help was a leaflet that looked like it’d been run off the office photocopier. Progress in the years since has prevented too many recurrences of such things.
So why do I bring all this up? Why, when open source has come so far, would I hark back to a fairly tawdry attempt to make some cash out of it? Because, out of the blue, I met someone last week who was talking about it. And it was their experiences with OOoFf that had led them straight back into the hands of Microsoft. As many have found since then, the Microsoft alternatives that that box offered have ironically become two of the most successful open source projects of all time. Yet when it comes to the crunch, the mass market isn’t interested in open or closed source. It’s interested in hard cash, and it’s interested in whether things work or not. Not always in that order.

Fortunately, we’re at a stage where open source software more than competes side-by-side with commercial alternatives. But the market, while interested, will give it no favours. Software, particularly in the eyes of corporates, is a tool for getting a specific job done. The irony is that OOoFf could have done so. But by failing to even give the perception that it could, its foot never got through the door. Happily, many that have followed in its wake have not made the same mistake.

This article originally appeared in issue 86 of Linux User & Developer.
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