Can you really live without Microsoft Office?

Open source and cloud computing alternatives can replace Office in some circumstances

If there's one application that everybody has, and depends on, it's Microsoft Office. The newest Office, though, has met with a mixed reaction, thanks to a changed user interface that caused concern in some quarters and increased connections with Microsoft's collaboration technology that has intrigued many in IT -- but is optimized for Vista environments that have been slow to gain adoption.

At the same time, more people are adopting Apple's Macintosh, where the newest Office incarnation has been roundly criticized for being just a partial implementation of the real thing. And the desktop Linux community is hoping that the emerging class of ultra-low-cost PCs and laptops may jump-start adoption -- and a need for Linux-based office productivity software. Thus, the time is right to see if you can live without Microsoft Office.

[ Read InfoWorld's comparative review of Google Docs, Lotus Symphony, OpenOffice, and Zoho, or view the "Office killers" slide show. | If you're looking to dump both Office and Windows, find out whether you can really switch to Mac OS X or convert to desktop Linux. ]

In the early days of the PC, Microsoft Office faced several vibrant competitors, but today, only a puny WordPerfect survives as a commercial product, and barely that. Mac users have the option of Apple's iWork suite, which works well for basic tasks but is oriented more toward visual document preparation than large-enterprise workflow.

But a new generation of competitors -- Google Docs, IBM Lotus Symphony, OpenOffice.org, and Zoho -- is emerging from two different directions: cloud computing services and open source software. While businesses have embraced SaaS (software as a service) for enterprise applications from CRM to security, and open source software for server operating systems and infrastructure component firmware, they have been far more reluctant to move desktop productivity software to either open source or the cloud. Still, the feature sets and user interfaces of the competition have developed to a point at which they can be considered serious options for personal productivity tasks.

So it's plausible to switch to an Office alternative. But how do you go about actually making the switch? There are several factors to work through, since technology is far from the only issue that has to be considered when thinking about a shift from a market leader to less-popular competitor. And each can have a cost.

The cost of training
Businesses considering alternatives to Office of course have to anticipate a steep cost of change. One of the great advantages of Microsoft Office is the number of people who know how to use its applications. In any switch to an alternative, you would likely need to do a good bit of training -- especially of heavy Excel users who tap into the significant and sometimes inherently complex functionality in that product. And don't forget the cost of rewriting all the Excel macros that create the monthly executive dashboard reporting at the company.

The new user interface introduced with Office 2007 is cited by some as creating an opportunity for exploring new applications, since the "ribbon" device used in Office 2007 is so radically different than that of earlier Office versions. An application suite like OpenOffice.org, which features a user interface similar to that used in Office 2003, could require less user training than the new version of Microsoft Office.

There are many third-party options available for training users on Microsoft Office products. But there are significantly fewer options for training employees in the use of other personal productivity suites. Developing application training courses in-house can be an expensive proposition, though such lessons have the advantage of being able to focus on an organization's particular use patterns and standards.

Many organizations don't feel it necessary to provide training to every employee on Microsoft Word and Excel, since so many employees come into their positions with experience in the software. That same level of prior knowledge can't be assumed for other packages -- with minor exceptions. In the legal field, for example, WordPerfect is still commonly used, and experience in its use is expected.

If training can be dealt with, there remain other issues, some of which involve software used by partners, customers, and suppliers.

The cost of compatibility
In a market filled with file formats standardized through committee action, the most commonly used document format is Microsoft Word's DOC file. Yes, there are common file formats, like RTF, and many Office alternatives can open and save to Office file formats. But saving back into those formats to share with Office users can be imperfect. In a business world that relies increasingly on collaboration, these file format issues can become showstoppers.

The problem worsens when the target shifts from word processors to spreadsheets. Many enterprise business intelligence and resource planning packages use Excel as a desktop front end to their data-gathering functions, and they rely heavily both on Excel's format and its VBA macro programming facilities. For example, while Zoho will import Excel spreadsheet files and allow development of VBA-format macros, the user interface is sufficiently different, and the style-import features sufficiently limited, to make it an imperfect "out of the box" substitute for Microsoft Excel at the corporate level.

The cost of support
Support has been a traditional stumbling block for those wanting to try alternatives to the application mainstream, and to some extent, it remains so with the current set of options. Both Zoho and IBM have partner programs in place to develop a channel for providing product support, and both OpenOffice.org and Google Docs have extensive user forums available to provide peer-based support for issues that arise. None of the suites provides the same level of support that corporations have come to expect with Microsoft Office, but they all have support mechanisms in place.

The support issue becomes more critical when an organization wants to allow flexibility in users' choice of personal productivity software. In these cases, the IT support staff must learn and support a primary productivity suite (usually Microsoft Office) and all the other suites in use. This scenario is the stuff of nightmares for many IT managers, who imagine their staffs constantly learning new applications to support individual users. For these managers, support and compatibility costs can easily combine to make the move to any productivity suite besides Microsoft Office untenable.

Assessing the options
Out of the four main Microsoft Office alternatives available, three could reasonably be used as the personal productivity piece of an organization's software arsenal. (For a more complete look at the four alternatives, see InfoWorld's Test Center review.) Of the four, only Google Docs seems not quite ready to take on the full mantle of business use. It's fine for an occasional project or for special purposes, but it's simply too limited in functionality and features to be a serious day-to-day contender. Google's development team (and large corps of third-party developers) has written an impressive variety of tools for publishing data in Google Docs on the Web, but those tools don't make up for the lack of some very basic capabilities in both word processing and spreadsheet applications.

Both OpenOffice.org and Zoho could ably serve as the personal productivity solution for many organizations. OpenOffice.org is traditionally deployed on a variety of workstations, whereas Zoho is a poster child for cloud-delivered applications, especially in the small-business market. While neither is perfect in moving files back and forth to Microsoft Office, and neither has as many features in as many individual applications, the advantages they offer in platform independence and free license cost are worthwhile.

Lotus Symphony, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. It has three well-designed applications, but the suite as a whole is not as capable as OpenOffice or Zoho because it doesn't provide database, communications, or collaboration capabilities. If you handle those in some other way, Symphony could ably take on the big functions of personal productivity: word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Symphony Write is especially capable at creating and organizing complex documents -- with a more comprehensive supporting cast, it could be a real competitor in this market.

Individual users and small organizations now have several legitimate options to consider when choosing a personal productivity suite. OpenOffice.org and Zoho, in particular, are capable collections of applications that are full competitors in the personal productivity space. For most larger organizations, though, the sheer inertia of the Microsoft Office installed base will make switching to another suite difficult. Whether the changes in the latest versions of the Microsoft software make overcoming inertia worthwhile will depend on how each of the options continues to improve and how much users are willing to explore possibilities in the face of the changes.

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