Should the gov't fund software development?

The case for the Hebrew Open office

openoffice (photo credit:)
(photo credit: )
DIGITAL WORLD - Who's afraid of OpenOffice? Not the government of Israel, which will once again fund development of the Hebrew OpenOffice project. But to judge by some of the online comments reacting to this news, there are lots of Israelis who are afraid of Oo! OpenOffice (, as everyone knows by now, is the free, open-source office suite, an alternative for many people (including yours truly) to Microsoft Office. Writing in English as I do, I work mostly with the US English version of Oo (and its Mac brother, NeoOffice), generally using the word processor component of the suite, and occasionally building a Powerpoint-style presentation using Oo's Presentation component. Now, this is not a story comparing the abilities, plusses and minuses, or other competitive aspects of the MS Office/OpenOffice issue - you can find reams of data about that in your friendly local Google search box. For most of those who have worked with both programs at one time or another, that battle was resolved a long time ago - depending on individual experience, need, disposable income (can you afford MS Office) or level of ethical commitment (do you refrain from pirating expensive software, especially if several perfectly good alternatives are available). For me, Oo works great; I haven't had compatibility issues for years, with everything I produce in OpenOffice readable and editable by those using MS Office, and vice versa. As far as I'm concerned, the war is over - and I (and my wallet) won! But because I work mostly in English, I had the luxury of choosing Oo - or other office suites, such as StarOffice (which used to be free), as alternatives to pricy MS software. For those who need to work in Hebrew, though, there was no choice - until 2003, when the Finance Ministry made a commitment to developing a Hebrew language version of OpenOffice, in order to give Israelis a choice. The government's antitrust authority was very close to declaring Microsoft a monopoly for refusing to include Hebrew support in a number of products ( and the Finance Ministry in fact suspended its upgrade and purchase contracts with MS for a time ( In addition, the ministry wanted to promote the development of a lower-cost office suite to help close the "digital gap," between the haves that could afford Microsoft Office license, and those who couldn't (Note that there was once a free Hebrew version of StarOffice, but that has been superseded by OpenOffice). Version 2.2 of the Hebrew version of OpenOffice is currently available for free (from Development is funded by the Ministry of Finance's government ISP, called Tehila (, via developer TK Open Systems (, which has been working for years to ensure full integration of right to left Hebrew text and fonts in the generally left to right version of Oo, as well as translating menus, etc., based on the original work done by Sun Microsystems. It should be noted that the general versions of OpenOffice have Hebrew support packs, and I haven't had a problem reading or writing Hebrew (although there are the usual on-screen quirks that are often noticed by users of Englishoriented word processors when typing in Hebrew, like the jumping cursors when switching between languages, or the sometimes backwards orientation of numbers). The Hebrew version of OpenOffice is for people who have a Hebrew language operating system, with menus in Hebrew and installed basic system Hebrew fonts. Interestingly, the Hebrew Oo also has an English support pack! Earlier this year, the Treasury informed OpenOffice's Hebrew development team that it had run out of money for further development (the current version seems to be mostly done, but there are always bugs to work out), but this week, the government told the developers that money had been found for further development, after all; work should get back into gear in about a month. There are currently versions for Windows and Linux, but further development will only be made on the Windows version, in order to ensure better "quality control" (actually, since Oo is open source and the code is readily available, an adept programmer should be able to import the changes to Linux). And, as part of the mission entrusted it by the government, the Israel Oo team plans to conduct workshops and seminars for users in peripheral areas in the North and the Negev, as well as in the Arab sector. This should help to ensure that even those without resources to attend training courses get the basics on how to use an office suite that works just like (yes, I know, not "exactly like") the basic office productivity suite in use today, thus helping to connect them to the world of modern business - something they may not have thought they would ever have the opportunity to be a part of. Thwarting a potential monopoly, ensuring choice, helping have-nots become haves - what could be wrong? You'd think Israelis would embrace OpenOffice, even if they weren't fans themselves, preferring the tried and true path of MS Office. But somehow, politics, security, and good old mud slinging gets into the mix when the subject comes up on local web sites. The level of vitriol slung by some "talk-backists" to the news that the government is committing more money to OpenOffice was overwhelming! Accusations of corruption, government waste ("Why don't they use the money to help the poor?"), kickbacks, and even appeals to national loyalty ("If everyone uses OpenOffice, hundreds of people at Microsoft Israel will lose their jobs!") - the reactions I read ran the gamut, with about 60 percent for resumed funding, and 40% against. The most cogent (and level-headed) arguments of the naysayers revolved around the inappropriateness of government getting involved in funding a project that is supposed to compete with a commercial product. And they have a point, of course; but the reason you have regulators in government is to make sure that there is real competition, and to prevent monopolies in the first place. Seen that way, the government's funding of OpenOffice is a salute to democracy and freedom of choice - and that's exactly what maintaining a free market is all about!