Alden group has software dreams

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 1, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

ALDEN &045; A few residents of rural Freeborn County have a simple dream: Anyone with a minimum-wage job can work just over a single day and be able to afford a fully functioning computer with all the software.

But the dream isn’t as distant as people think, said the members of Alden-Conger Equal Access Education, a group dedicated to convincing the Alden-Conger School District to move from proprietary office software &045; Microsoft Office &045; to open source software called OpenOffice.

The Alden-Conger school board has heard their concerns, but district leaders also say these things take time.

Open-source software can be downloaded from the Internet for free and upgrades don’t cost money either.

&8220;We have learned that, like it or not, people look at it as a technology issue,&8221; said Clinton Meyer, one of the members of Equal Access.

Meyer and four students and former students of Alden-Conger School see it as more of a social issue. Using the free software in school would encourage students to use it at home, instead of doing what they frequently do and pirating the software they need for assignments.

And OpenOffice is comparable to Microsoft Office in terms of functionality and use. Its word-processing program, Writer, has most of the same options and can open Microsoft Word documents. OpenOffice works on Macintosh, Windows and Linux computers.

If Alden-Conger schools start using OpenOffice, they won’t be the first organization to make the leap. The state of Massachusetts uses the format as its standard for all state government documents, ensuring that Microsoft cannot start charging fees to use its format sometime in the future. Though it’s unlikely Microsoft would do that, the company could if it chose, since it owns the format.

According to Equal Access, Alden-Conger schools spend about $40 to $72 on Microsoft Office per computer, keeping them upgraded.

&8220;We don’t know of any school district that has too much money, so why don’t you save the money you would spend on that and use it for other purposes?&8221; Meyer said. &8220;With this, for absolutely no cost to any family, to any school district, to anybody, everybody can have the absolute most up-to-date version of the software.&8221;

Not all the Microsoft Office programs are from the same year, sometimes causing compatibility issues when transferring saved files from one computer to another. OpenOffice can open documents from any version of Office, according to Equal Access.

It is also very similar to Microsoft Office, and so the learning curve for the new software is minimal, allowing even those who aren’t technically inclined to master the software with relative ease, says Equal Access.

Open source software could be the next big trend. Because the source is accessible to anyone, any programmer can fix bugs or add new features, ensuring the software is always up-to-date.

&8220;I believe this trend is happening, and will continue to grow. Why not here?&8221; Meyer said.

Alden-Conger Superintendent Joe Guanella said the school’s change to OpenOffice may eventually happen, but not for a while.

&8220;Sometime in the future it may come up, but we have way too many programs and processes here at the school. It can’t change quickly,&8221; Guanella said. &8220;At this point, it’s just not something that’s on our radar yet.&8221;