Friday, November 16, 2007

Is It Time To Chuck MS Office For A Less Expensive Alternative?

Some of us are old enough to remember when Lotus 123 was king of the spread sheets, WordPerfect ruled the document space, Harvard Graphics was the preferred presentation tool, and our email client was whatever CompuServe provided. However, Microsoft gave us its Office suite with Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook; and now Microsoft completely dominates the space previously occupied by these former icons.

Many IT managers chafe at Microsoft’s dominance of the office “productivity suite” market. They especially balk at the chunk of their budget it takes to acquire new MS Office licenses (about $500 per seat), upgrade old ones (over $300 per seat), and maintain the Windows Server environments it takes to enable Office desktop use and Internet connectivity.

We now see many alternatives in the marketplace ranging from no cost open source products to lower cost commercially marketed products. On the free end, we currently have, Google Docs, and others. (Example: Lotus Symphony, which is currently free; but will probably fall into the commercial category once it gains traction.) On the commercial product list, there are many offerings. The best known are: Corel WordPerfect Office ($350 or so per seat); StarOffice (under $70); and iWork (under $80).

Are any of these as good as the MS Office standard users are accustomed to? Probably, except for power users who use macros, pivot tables, and collaborators who need to track changes made by one another. However, there are other considerations to conversion that can be daunting. What follows is a discussion of the most critical ones.

1. Conversion. Conversion of documents from one suite to another is not perfect. This is especially true of heavily formatted Word documents and presentation documents: both types may convert with odd results that require reworking the document in the new software. If you have a large library of standard documents to convert, this could be a big effort.

2. Macros. Macros from one suite will generally not translate to a new suite. The work required to build new macros is a factor to consider.

3. Platform. If you want to completely phase out Microsoft, it means changing the operating system for the desktops and servers to something else. That something else is probably going to be some flavor of Unix or Linux. Changing the operating systems on existing hardware is a huge undertaking and will result in user discontent as some favorite applications are not available on the new platform.

4. Email. Outlook has been Microsoft Office’s killer application. It is good and feature rich. In recent implementations it also has integration with other Microsoft applications that will not be found on competing platforms. IT managers may also have to evaluate and select email client software since many suites do not have one. Exchange users who are coordinating calendars, meetings and using other Exchange features also have considerable homework to do.

5. Training. While many competitors have tried to create a look and feel that Microsoft Office users will find familiar, the fact is the applications will have differences and users will need to be trained and supported in making the transition.

6. Collaboration. Compatibility with users in other organizations, “markup” sharing with other users and other collaborations tools are generally weak in the alternative software. If you have these needs, tread carefully.

Based upon the factors listed above, the attraction of replacing Office dims substantially. The conversion costs are just prohibitive. Webs based applications like Google Docs offer the most painless transition; but still have problems to overcome like perceived security of sensitive documents and Internet connection downtime.

In my opinion, converting from MS Office is still too costly for large organizations that have already invested in the Microsoft Office software and supporting technology. However, startups, smaller businesses facing upgrades, and new offices of larger organizations should seriously consider the open source alternatives. The initial savings can be substantial.