Productivity software

Can You Really Live Without Microsoft Office?

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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