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.