We Are Not Alone: Bristol City Council Converts 5,500 desktops to StarOffice

The Massachusetts decision to implement OpenDocument Format (ODF) has attracted so much attention that little has been directed at other end users (governmental and otherwise) that have decided to adopt ODF.  But there are other adopters, and I read of another one just now - the City of Bristol, in England, which will switch 5,500 desktops from Office to StarOffice.  As a result of the decidion, the City expects to save 60% of the costs of using office productivity software over a five year period.  The news of such a significant cost saving is particularly significant for three reasons:  first, it involves a switch to a commercial product (StarOffice) that will require payment of licensing fees rather than conversion to one of the free open source implementations of ODF, such as OpenOffice.  Second, the switch is based upon a full analysis of all costs of purchase, installation, re-training and support.   And third, it involved a head-to-head contest between Sun and Microsoft, with MS pitching hard, but unsuccessfullyl, to avoid losing the customer.

As reported by eGovMonitor.com:

The [Bristol City] council had identified a need to simplify the mixed environment of Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect and Microsoft Office. Too much time was spent on converting documents, even for internal sharing, and without a corporate licensing agreement there were many versions of each product in use. Many of these tools did not support the newer features of Microsoft Office, and this made collaborating with partners more difficult.

The obvious solution was to standardise on Microsoft Office, but the decision by Microsoft to make changes to its volume licensing terms, removing upgrade rights and introducing Software Assurance, significantly increased costs for Bristol Council and provided an opportunity, and another incentive, to explore the other options available.

Interestingly enough, it appears from the article that the decision was based solely on economic grounds, rather than out of a concern over future document accessibility.  Initially, there was concern over making a switch from Microsoft products, but a pilot conducted by Sun Microsystems in the local housing offices provided assurance of the quality and appropriateness of StarOffice, as well as costs of conversion and ownership.  Accordingly to Gavin Beckett, Bristol City Council’s IT strategy manager:

Clearly, having weighed up all the relevant costs, we decided that the TCO [total cost of ownership] of StarOffice was lower than Microsoft Office, otherwise we wouldn’t have recommended the Council adopt it….You could say that we stacked the deck in favour of Microsoft Office to reflect users views. Despite this approach, we found that the TCO calculations favoured StarOffice.

Clearly, Microsoft didn’t want to lose out to Sun, and they were very keen to persuade us that we should choose MS Office as our new standard. We met with them and discussed the concerns we had, around cost and lock-in, and listened to their point of view. …Ultimately, although Microsoft were able to show us the best way to procure licences at the lowest cost under the nationally agreed OGC terms, they simply did not respond to our key point – that each MS Office licence was 12 times more expensive than the equivalent StarOffice licence for the public sector.

The story is significant in yet one more way:  having worked so hard to investigate its decision, the Bristol City Council decided to document it for the benefit of others as well.  The City of Bristol, as it happens, is a member of  the Open Source Academy (OSA), created by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s (ODPM) e-Innovations programme in order to encourage local authorities to use open source software.   Beckett reports: 

We had to break new ground in so many areas; building the business case, evaluating the software, designing the deployment and migration plan, assessing the scale and kind of training needed and so on. My goal for the Open Source Academy resource packs was to make it quick and easy for other Councils to make confident decisions and implement StarOffice or OpenOffice.org effectively” said Beckett.

The documentation, comprising feature comparisons, business cases and more, can be found at the OSA Website

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