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Changing Perceptions of Open Source Software: OpenOffice.org, Mozilla Firefox, and More

Moving Beyond "You Get What You Pay For"

“You get what you pay for.” It’s an adage we all know, understand, and probably agree with. But is it true for computer software?

Those of us in the tech industry would say no, as our experience with Linux has informed us to the possibilities of open source software. But what about the broader consumer market? Until recently, open source software has been more associated with “freeware,” “shareware,” and other similar applications. Compared with their commercial counterparts, they have generally been inferior in quality. Until now.

OpenOffice.org, Mozilla Firefox and others have been leading a wave that is bound to change broad conceptions about the quality of open source applications. Bringing the value of community innovation and collaboration, mass adoption and pricing disruption to consumer software will, in the end, stand to benefit both consumers and the tech industry alike.

One of my favorite examples is Gaim, a powerful multi-protocol instant messaging application, that released its 1.0.0 version on September 17, 2004 and notched a 300% spike in downloads. According to Sean Egan, one of Gaim’s lead developers, Gaim is used by hundreds of thousands of users worldwide and is the de facto standard instant messaging application in virtually every Linux desktop, including Sun’s Java Desktop System.

Firefox’s recent 1.0 Preview Release netted over a million downloads in its first week and brought praise from the Wall Street Journal’s Walter Mossberg, one of the world’s toughest consumer technology critics, who recommended dumping Internet Explorer for Firefox. He noted that “it’s not only more secure but also more modern and advanced, with tabbed browsing and a better pop-up ad blocker.”

OpenOffice.org, which Sun Microsystems open sourced four years ago, has combined with StarOffice for over 40 million downloads worldwide, largely due to its high quality and exceptional interoperability with Microsoft Office file formats. It is far and away the number one Linux platform office suite and has been making significant inroads on the Windows platform as well. These massive worldwide deployments actually inform a larger point: consumers matter.

Few large-scale technology projects can survive and progress without a dedicated user base. As Sun promotes the OpenOffice.org Conference in Berlin, Germany this week, it is worth noting that Microsoft asked for and received a presence at the show. This is remarkable in and of itself, but in the end it happened because Microsoft saw that a large ecosystem of OpenOffice.org enthusiasts have developed across the world in addition to the millions of consumers who use it everyday without a second thought.

The arrival of quality open source applications for consumers portends a massive shift in the economics of consumer software. Once consumers come to expect that their most basic applications should be affordable, high quality and developed in the open to mitigate security risks, communities of developers and enthusiasts will continue to converge. For example, how long will it be before Adobe Photoshop feels the pressure from GIMP, the open source graphics editing software?

At Sun Microsystems, we heartily endorse the idea that consumers should have a choice in their desktop applications and encourage them to try OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Gaim, GIMP and others. We also encourage companies and open source organizations to work together on defining open standards for interoperability and expect that our futures will be better off because of it.

More Stories By Manish Punjabi

Manish Punjabi is responsible for marketing StarOffice and OpenOffice.org products, and speaks frequently at trade shows and industry conferences on network computing trends.

Prior to his current role, Manish was responsible for marketing Sun's Network Identity, Communication and Portal Server products to key industry verticals and OEM markets.
Before joining Sun Microsystems, Manish launched a venture capital backed venture, Quamba. Quamba delivered remote managed testing and monitoring services to high-traffic Web sites. Earlier work experience includes various software development positions encompassing the design and implementation of X-window applications in the Unix environment.

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