Small business switches to OpenOffice to escape Microsoft product activationGrowing disaffection with\u00a0Microsoft\u00a0licensing and product activation policies is spurring some small businesses \u2014like American LED-gible \u2014 to switch from Microsoft Office to cheaper open-source alternatives.\u00a0As the name suggests,\u00a0American LED-gible\u00a0makes giant signs made from millions of light-emitting diodes, which manufacturers such as General Motors use to broadcast information to assembly line workers. Currently, the Columbus, Ohio, firm is building a sign that\u2019s 12 feet wide and 6 feet tall, weighing more than 1,000 pounds.When Microsoft began requiring product activation with the launch of Office XP two years ago, American LED-gible balked. Product activation limits to 50 the number of times a company can copy the software before contacting Microsoft for an activation number.\u201cThis is huge liability because the keys to your software are held by the vendor,\u201d says Matthew Linehan, engineering manager at American LED-gible.\u00a0 Because the company routinely uses older software versions to work on legacy data and documents, Linehan fears Microsoft could use product activation to force future upgrades, which would be costly and hamper the company\u2019s productivity.\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0So rather than risk it, American LED-gible decided to pursue an open-source software system. Linehan downloaded\u00a0OpenOffice 1.1, which is available free, and began testing it on his own system. In time, all 10 employees made the switch.\u00a0Linehan admits the transition from Office to Open Office wasn\u2019t completely painless. \u201cIt certainly works differently, so there is a learning curve, but once you\u2019ve learned to use it, it\u2019s a perfectly good and functional suite. I can do anything I could do in Office before,\u201d he says.The firm\u2019s accounting department \u2014 which wasn\u2019t completely sold on leaving Excel \u2014 found the transition especially difficult \u2014 at least until Linehan helped them figure out which spreadsheet functions they needed.\u00a0\u201cThe learning curve did have some impact on our productivity [at the beginning], but we did the conversion during a [business] downturn when we were slow anyway,\u201d Linehan says.\u00a0 He recommends other small businesses take a go-slow approach, switching one program at a time.\u00a0Now American LED-gible is exploring switching its desktop operating system from Windows 2000 to Linux. Linehan is running tests, and believes that because it\u2019s flexible and free, open-source software is better for everyone.\u201cEven if it\u2019s not a philosophical issue, on price alone, open source beats out proprietary systems,\u201d he says.\u00a0Sun's\u00a0StarOffice 7.0\u00a0($80) includes enhancements to OpenOffice such as a database, spell checker and other features.\u00a0 Click\u00a0here\u00a0to view a comparative features chart.