Open Source: OpenOffice.org We Have a Problem

I am unashamedly an advocate for Open Source software. I run a small business that offers custom built, inexpensive computers with Open Source software preinstalled. I urge my clients to move to Open Source software whenever it makes sense for them to do so. This includes full systems such as Linux distributions and cross-platform software such as OpenOffice.org Office Suite. However, recently I have been disappointed by a test install of OpenOffice.org for a charitable organization client of ours.

You see, this client is trying to find ways to reduce costs. One method of cost reduction I always recommend is to evaluate free, Open Source software as replacement for expensive, proprietary, Closed Source software. This client, like many others stuck in the proprietary software upgrade loop, is going to have to move off of Microsoft XP Professional sometime before 2014 when it will no longer be supported. Their computers will almost all have to be replaced to be able to run Windows 7 well if they decide to stick with Microsoft. Of course I am asking them to evaluate Open Source, and they are. One of the decision makers has been running a Linux distribution on his new home PC with a VirtualBox install of Microsoft Vista for about two months now. He volunteered to do this so he could be well informed for making a decision about the future direction of the charity's software needs.

During a recent reinstall of one of the charity's office PC systems following a bad Microsoft Patch Day that only affected that PC it was decided to install OpenOffice.org on the XP Professional system rather than the expensive, proprietary, Closed Source software that had been on there. I gladly did this and put on the latest release of OpenOffice.org at the time, which was version 3.1. There were some complaints from the user as it did not do what her previous office suite did. She had taught herself to use key bindings in that other software to do things faster. She did not know how to do these in OpenOffice.org and of course the similar functions are not bound to the same keystrokes. However, this is merely a retraining problem that can be solved easily with some hands-on training time.

One problem that did crop up though was one I had never seen before while using OpenOffice.org on Linux. When this user tried to save some of her Calc spreadsheet documents she was getting an error:

Error saving the document filename-goes-here:
Write Error.
The file could not be written.

This had never happened with her other office suite. I thought perhaps this was a problem writing to a network share. I suggested saving to the local drive. Nope, the error persisted. The only thing she could do was close the document without saving it. She was able to copy the spreadsheet information to the clip-board first, then a subsequent Calc document did save it. So the data was not lost, but this was a regularly occurring problem. When OpenOffice.org 3.2 came out the user downloaded and installed it on my suggestion that bugs would be fixed and new functions would be available. I was correct about new functions, but this bug was still there.

This was now a serious concern and a broadside against my recommendation of OpenOffice.org for this client. I know Microsoft has deliberately made competitor software not work well in the past. I began to suspect this was an attempt by Microsoft to kill OpenOffice.org on the Microsoft desktop because we all know Microsoft is very concerned that its cash cow will be killed by OpenOffice.org. With some research I discovered I was wrong, this problem is not Microsoft perfidy. It is unconscionable, but none the less true, that this is perhaps a long standing bug in OpenOffice.org itself:

http://www.openoffice.org/issues/show_bug.cgi?id=69993
http://www.openoffice.org/issues/show_bug.cgi?id=88318

I actually found references in the bug Issue 69993 to this exact error message going back to 2006(!). Now, I am aware that this error message may be triggered for several different conditions. One suggestion in the OpenOffice.org forums is a full temporary directory is the problem. But the temporary directory is not full in some of the cases. However, the fact remains that some people cannot on the first try save files to perfectly good file systems with a temporary directory that is NOT full. The fact also remains that these exact conditions have persisted for more than two years through several versions of OpenOffice.org. This problem does not just show up on Microsoft systems. It also rears its ugly head on Apple OS X and I saw at least one reference to this on a Linux system.

Understandably, we advocates for Open Source cannot have this type of long standing bug and expect to be taken seriously. A company that was relying on its software sales to make money and pay employees from those sales would have to fix a problem like this or go out of business. In Open Source we are not relying on sales to make money so some things that would be a software killer in expensive, proprietary, Closed Source software is allowed to continue under Open Source software. The voluntary nature of Open Source development means that in some cases unless someone cares enough to solve a bug then that bug will languish in the source code unfixed. It is not like one has to worry about being fired if one does not fix bugs in OpenOffice.org or most other Open Source software.

Yes, I know that much of Open Source development is now done by folks in paid positions in companies like IBM, Intel, Novell, Red Hat and so on. However, these paid programmers are working for the interests of their company, not the interest of free, Open Source software itself nor the Open Source community of users. While we should appreciate the efforts to develop Open Source by these companies we should also be aware they they do this work out of self-interest for their own benefit. Our benefits from their work in the Open Source community are just side benefits. It is still up to those of us that are voluntary programmers to take charge of bugs, own them and fix them as quickly as possible.

No, I am not a programmer and I do not have time to become one, so suggestions that I fix it myself are not welcome. This is true of the greater majority of software end-users.

Where am I going with this? What is my goal? Actually, I wrote this article as I thought it out. I did not outline it nor come up with an end-game goal for it. I simply wanted to air out what I see as a problem with "free" software development and perhaps get some people motivated to take action in cases where the software bugs are persistent but difficult to reproduce. In this case with OpenOffice.org, perhaps there is finally a resolution for this bug:

http://www.openoffice.org/issues/show_bug.cgi?id=108374

But we will have to wait for OpenOffice.org 3.3 to find out. It cannot get here soon enough in my opinion. If OpenOffice.org 3.3 does still have this bug then my client will likely see that as a reason to stop considering Open Source. That will be tragic because they really do need to cut costs and free, Open Source software can definitely help with that. But should the bug persist a "No" will be unavoidable in this case.

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Edit Mon May 10 18:34:12 CDT 2010: Clarify the sentence about temporary directories by splitting it into two sentences with more detail.