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Why I like Oracle’s $90 ODF Plugin

There has been a flurry of news articles about Oracle’s price change on their (formerly Sun’s) ODF Plugin for MS Office.  What was previously free (as in beer), at least for individual use, is now sold for $90 and with a minimum quantity of 100.  The broad coverage (ZDNet, BusinessWeek, CNET,  NBC, IDG, etc.)  of this minor story suggests someone was shopping this story around.  I wonder who?

At the risk of pouring oil on the fire, let me say that I think this is an exciting development for ODF.  We have three solutions for providing ODF support in MS Office:

  1. Oracle’s Plugin
  2. CleverAge Add-in
  3. Microsoft’s native ODF support

These three solutions have always varied in terms of quality of conversion, versions of MS Office supported, versions of ODF supported, level of integration into MS Office, etc.  And now they vary based on price.  This is a good thing.  It is called “competition”.  I like it.

Although I personally think that Oracle has set the price too high, I realize that we have a market to sort these things out.  If they act rationally (and I assume they will) they’ll charge an amount that maximizes their return.  If they are not already at a profit-maximizing price point, they will adjust.  That is how prices are set in a free market.   But if Oracle can really get $90 per copy, with a minimum quantity of 100, then all the power to them.  I just hope that some of that money gets plowed back into their development of this and other ODF-related tools.  That is how we grow stronger and more powerful ODF tools.  Someone needs the impetus to make that investment.  If the profit motive drives investment in ODF,  then Praise be to Mammon!  And remember, if Oracle’s Plugin gets more people to use ODF, then that is a larger audience for your open source ODF tool.  This is a good thing.  The important thing is we’re growing the number of people using ODF.

We should want companies to invest in ODF tools.  We should want the demand for ODF to be such that ODF-based goods and services have value, can be sold based on that value, and that there is competition again in the market, something we have not seen in this area in many years.

2009-04-23 — Some further thoughts

It is probably worth reflecting why the Sun Plugin was necessary in the first place.  If Microsoft Office supported ODF fully, in a well-integrated and interperable fashion, then surely no ODF Plugin would be necessary. You would gain your ODF support simply by purchasing your MS Office license.  In effect, you are already paying for ODF support (along with all other Office features) when you purchase MS Office. If you are buying Oracle’s $90 Plugin, remember that you are essentially paying for ODF support twice: once to Microsoft and once to Oracle.

If I were paying twice for the same feature, I’d be upset as well.  But is the solution really for Oracle to continue subsidizing MS Office users by giving away their Plugin for free?  Or maybe Microsoft customers should ask their vendor why their Office ODF support is not adequate?  Ideally there would be no need for a Plugin because the out-of-the-box ODF support would meet customer requirements.  I’m sure Microsoft, like any other vendor, would value such feedback from their customers.   But to me it seems perverse to blame Oracle for no longer subsidizing their competitor’s product.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Sam Johnston 2010/04/21, 2:11 pm

    Nice angle Rob… not sure I fully agree that it’s helpful for something that was free to now cost something, but it’s also possible that now it’s on a price list it’ll be on the radar to more enterprise customers.

  • Alex Brown 2010/04/21, 2:16 pm

    $99 ?

    has it gone up already? (I thought it was $90 — or rather $9,000 since the minimum order is 100 seats). [Ed. Fixed. Thanks.]

  • W^L+ (Walt Hucks) 2010/04/21, 2:51 pm

    I wrote about this yesterday: http://lnxwalt.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/it-starts-orcl-charges-90-for-odf-plugin/

    Where the plugin has been useful is individuals and businesses that are committed to Microsoft Office, but where the user occasionally has the need to open or save a file in an ODF format. The Clever Age add-in frequently fails to open files created with OpenOffice.org (OOo). You’ve already covered the flaws in Microsoft’s implementation. For some time now, ODF-interested MSOffice users have depended on the ODF Plugin.

    While I have long encouraged people to buy StarOffice and reward Sun for its work in bringing OOo to us, and I recognize that continued support and development depends upon some expected financial returns stream from ODF-using products, I found that even the prior “create a free Sun account to download the plugin” was sufficient to keep both individuals and company tech support team members from obtaining it. http://lnxwalt.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/suns-odf-plugin-registration-now-required/ The $90 x 100 qty hurdle will keep everyone but the pointy-headed “only buy Microsoft” CIOs from getting it–and they won’t, because it isn’t a Microsoft product.

    Field IT won’t be able to obtain it because they aren’t allowed to buy software, even for a one-off “we need to open this file” situation. Headquarters IT won’t accept it because of the vendor name.

    Now, maybe Oracle’s sales force is stronger than I think (although their namesake database has been losing ground for years on Windows server to SQL Server). I hope so. Because in my view, the plugin is doomed to complete obscurity unless they change course.

    If anything, this will strengthen those in the “fork OOo” movement as they can see the handwriting on the wall for zero-price distribution of that product also.

  • Jesper Lund Stocholm 2010/04/21, 3:03 pm

    Hi Rob,

    Even though I think the price level is nuts, I agree with you – if they can charge $99 for the plug-in, more power to them. If nothing else it shows increased confidence in ODF (and OOo). Sun (now ORACLE) showed increased earnings supporting and selling StarOffice and the number of companies in Denmark supporting OOo is increasing. That is a good sign. Increased need for support for OOo is not an indication that the product is bad – on the contrary, it is a sign that companies now depend their business-critical processes on it.

    PS: Are you gonna finish the conversation we were having over on Alex’ blog?


  • Răzvan 2010/04/23, 3:46 am

    Hi Rob,

    Well, I think the situation is more complex than presented above.

    The centralised “we’ll buy the Oracle plugin” approach works in big, American-style companies, that have a centralised IT department (and clear IT policy).

    For small, European-style bussineses (“boutique” type), Oracle’s move will seriously limit their options in opening and creating ODF documents. Many of these bussineses don’t see any problem in using the latest MS Office suite and are still uneducated about the necessity of using open formats. They will keep using .doc and .docx (the DEFAULT format in the office suite they are using). At best, some of them will install Openoffice.org, but some will choose to produce broken ODF spreadsheets via Microsoft Excel. This is one more problem to correct for the FOSS community – because we will end up with a corpus of broken spreadsheets on the market.

    BTW, what are Oracle plans with OpenOffice.org ? Will they monetize that, too ?

    IMHO, three things are urgently needed (if not already available):

    – a plugin in OpenOffice.org that will (silently and automatically) transform any Excel-style ODF spreadsheet in its OpenFormula-style conterpart;

    – a Free Software (and free-as in-beer, too) ODF plugin for Microsoft Office, community driven

    – a simple and tiny utility to MASS-CONVERT all sort of Microsoft documents to ODF 1.2-compliant counterparts (both a command-line version, like the dos2unix utility, and a GUI version).

    The later will allow system administrators to accelerate moving the corpus of older documents to ODF, in order to produce the desired critical mass of such documents. At that point, EVERY business or individual will be driven to choose some way of opening and creating ODF documents, because of the network effect.

  • Rob 2010/04/23, 7:13 am

    Răzvan, the only way that Oracle can get away with charging $90 for their plugin is because of the feature gap between what they have produced and what MS provides natively, and what the CleverAge plugin produces. So if you want to change the value of the Plugin (and thus its price) you need to address this feature gap.

    One way is if a customer wants to use ODF and MS Office, and they have purchased Office 2007 or Office 2010, then they should contact Microsoft support department if they are unable to read other ODF spreadsheet documents. Make sure Microsoft’s support department hears about the problem. If a customer has an enterprise support agreement, then escalate the issue. The ODF support in Office 2010 is not a “freebie”. It is part of the product, something the customer has paid for. They should expect it to work. Up until now, Sun with their ODF Plugin has subsidized MS Office users by giving them good ODF support for free.

    Also, if you are looking at alternatives to MS Office, then factor in the cost to provide adequate ODF support. Maybe that means that you need to add $90 to the cost choosing MS Office when calculating the TCO.

    The 2nd approach is to make a more capable, better integrated open source plugin, either by contributing to the CleverAge plugin, or by making a new one.

    Another option would be for Oracle to make their plugin open source. That might be the best of both worlds. It takes the development expenses, at least partially, off their books, makes the plugin available everywhere for free, but still allows them to charge for enterprise support. But the question they would likely have is this: Are there really people out there willing to contribute to such an open source project? Are there really people out there with deep knowledge of MS Office’s file filter architecture, RTF, ODF, etc., who would assist in making this a viable open source project?

  • mouring 2010/04/23, 10:28 am

    @Rob”Another option would be for Oracle to make their plugin open source. That might be the best of both worlds. It takes the development expenses, at least partially, off their books, [..]”

    Sadly, it depends on how you look at it. A good development (well-funded) has a 1:1 development process. For every hour of coding you have an hour of QA time. Since all the development is in house the QA person can go back to the original developer with a bug report and it can be fixed quickly.

    When you open source you still have the cost of a code review, cost of QA time, but what may kill any cost savings in development is any bugs may need to be address with an internal developer who didn’t write the code, and may not be as familiar with the changes. Thus it could double or quadrupole fix time.

    @Răzvan “BTW, what are Oracle plans with OpenOffice.org ? Will they monetize that, too ?”

    They do. It is called “StarOffice”.

    As for the ODF plugin… I must be in the wrong field. I see very little caring about in my slice of Corp. America. Gov’t contracts still require MS Word documents. Most customers still want MS Word documents.

  • Joshua 2010/04/23, 10:10 pm

    I may not like with Oracle’s recent decision, but it’s called capitalism.
    I am for freedom to choose any office suite.
    Openoffice.org is a decent office suite. I know a few who use openoffice.org. Considering that what’s been going on, there’s no need to overreact.
    I have suggested to several people to use openoffice.org. Besides openoffice.org is strapped user’s tool. Even though it lacks grammar checker.
    A simple solution is to make office suites interoperability with ODF. It will save the headache for all users. who wish to share their writings or update their files. On a friend’s computer.

  • Joshua 2010/04/24, 6:01 pm

    Actually saving document as ODF 1.1 via MS Office works adequately. It didn’t screw up my documents. Long as I can save as adequately. I won’t be complaining.
    I am sure that makers of mainstream office suites would figure out this wrinkle.
    Hopefully that the pissing match won’t go out of hand. Last thing that average user needs is to be right smack middle of it.

    It seems ODF would become the standard.

    If I do get myself a new computer I might switch to openoffice.org. And back up my documents before converting them to ODF.
    the reason why I would opt for openoffice.org, instead of StarOffice (Oracle Open Office). It’s free, and one can install it on many computers. Not to mention both Star Office and openoffice.org doesn’t have grammar checker. It’s a no brainer. besides I am not going to pay for a product without a grammar checker.

    Of course there’s an old saying, every office suite comes with its own quirk. And you can’t have it both ways. You’ll have to make due with what you got.

  • Oscar 2010/04/29, 4:25 pm

    Hi Rob
    I think this is actually a good idea. Oracle should rightly try to monetize the investment in OpenOffice by charging for plug ins; and in particular plug ins that are used in the corporate environment.
    On that note what I would like to see is Oracle and others starting to support plug ins for other applications: Business Intelligence such as Hyperion (now owned by Oracle), etc. In particular it would make sense for them to enable all products across their portfolio to work together. If companies have to pay for it, so be it. This is a better use of resources than supporting competitor products.

  • Jason 2010/09/22, 2:52 am

    If you want a grammar checker for StarOffice or OpenOffice get LanguageTool at http://www.languagetool.org, which is free. If you don’t want to be bothered to install it on your own, even though it is extremely easy, buy OpenOffice Novell Edition for Windows here (also available on Linux) http://www.novell.com/products/openofficewindows/.

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