Office 2007 faces competition where it may count the most: pricing

Facing a string of low- and no-cost competitors to Office, Microsoft may need to make a few changes to hold on to the enterprise market.

I was recently faced with an odd dilemma, one that rarely comes my way. My sister wanted to purchase a new computer for her husband as an anniversary present. She asked if I could build the computer and install the OS, to which I gleefully replied in the affirmative. Although my family believes this must be what it means to "work with computers" (having no clue as to what I really do in the field of enterprise Windows and messaging for global corporations), it's actually a rare thing that I build (rather than buy) a system. There is always that excitement of picking out a motherboard and processor; deciding on power versus price; choosing memory, drives, and monitor; putting it all together; and pushing the button in the hopes that the glow of electric data will illuminate the screen. (Ahem. Is it obvious that A Christmas Story was played one time too many this holiday season?)

But I digress. I installed the OS (Vista of course. Why would I put anything else on this powerful monster of a machine I just created? No other OS could fully take advantage of the system), and then came to the unfortunate problem that my sister and brother-in-law needed the standard applications for word processing, database, presentations, and so forth. In assessing Office 2007, I came up with a price that cost more than the computer itself: the Professional version was pricing out at $400 on Amazon.com. This present was becoming a little too steep for my younger sibling. I was close to sending her away with Notepad and Wordpad but decided to see what OpenOffice was up to. It had been a while since I gave it a thorough review.

Turns out that I was quite impressed by OpenOffice 3.0, and that is exactly what I installed on the new system -- at no cost. Now you might initially think that the features are no way comparable to Office 2007, and you would be correct about that for the high-end features. And let me just say that I personally love Office 2007; I think it is the best version of Office since '97, and the new ribbon interface is absolutely perfect, although it might take a little getting used to. However, if your business doesn't require all of your employees to have every little feature, you might consider OpenOffice 3.0 as an alternative.

[ Read an in-depth comparison of OpenOffice and Office 2007 by Computerworld's Preston Gralla. ]

OpenOffice 3.0 offers you a counterpart to many Office applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access (respectively titled Writer, Calc, Impress, and Base). Certainly if you have the Ultimate edition of Office 2007, you will miss such items as Groove 2007, InfoPath, OneNote, Outlook, and Publisher. But OpenOffice provides the basics that most users need without the hefty price tag. In addition, those who take issue with the new ribbon interface will like knowing that the OpenOffice interface follows the familiar menu selections (File, Edit, View, etc.) that users are already comfortable with.

You may not see all of the templates and wizards you are used to with Office, but you won't be disappointed completely in this regard. There are some templates and wizards in OpenOffice, as well as mail-merge settings, macros, charting capabilities, a math equation editor, and a drawing tool. You can even export to PDF (something that just came out with Office 2007).

OpenOffice 3.0 does have an issue with file compatibility with the new Office 2007 XML standard (.docx, .xlsx, etc.) but it will at least allow you to read those formats, although you won't be able to write to them. You will have the ability to work easily with legacy file types (.doc, .xls, .ppt). OpenOffice 3.0 also offers support for Access 2007 database files (.accedb files) and support for Visual Basic for application macros. It works with ODF 1.2 and OpenOffice XML (OOXML). It offers native support for OS X for Mac users. Finally, it has an extension manager for additional add-ons.

So, what does this all boil down to? Am I saying that OpenOffice is a realistic competitor for Microsoft Office? Well, if the competition is based upon price (which in our current economy is usually a key factor) then yes -- so long as your users will be able to get all of their work done reasonably. However, more than likely you should consider using OpenOffice for users who simply do not require the higher-end features Office has to offer. For example, if your company has already invested in SharePoint or is planning to, going with OpenOffice would not be the wise choice: Many of the killer features you see in Office 2007 are designed to leverage Sharepoint.

As Preston Gralla wrote in his comparison of OpenOffice and MS Office, and I agree, "Who should use OpenOffice? Anyone who needs an office suite but doesn't require the more sophisticated features of Microsoft Office. It's ideally suited for home users, students, and small businesses who don't want to pay the hefty fee for Microsoft Office."

One thing you should keep in mind, however, is that many users complain that the OpenOffice interface is somewhat dull, mind-numbing, and "something out of the '90s of computing." Now that may depend on whether those users have already worked with Office 2007, which has such a beautiful look to it and is so much easier to work with.

From the enterprise perspective, you may have an existing environment that has people functioning just fine with Office 97, 2000, XP, or 2003. Staying within the Microsoft world offers administrators the ability to be provided the support they need for deployment, configuration, and troubleshooting of their applications that come from the Redmond giant. But hopefully, software like OpenOffice (or even the cloud-based applications like Google Docs and Zoho) will be a bit of a wakeup call to Microsoft that the company needs to come down a bit on the price to keep its market-share lead.

Note: If you have the ability to spend some money but not quite the full amount for Office, you might consider a product called ThinkFree Office, which is better in many respects than OpenOffice but comes with a $50 price tag. In considering the two side by side, I was impressed by the differences enough to qualify the price. There are other alternatives as well from Corel (WordPerfect), Sun (StarOffice), and others. Here is a chart that shows many of the competitors (although OpenOffice 3 wasn't out at the time the chart was made).

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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