In the kingdom of business productivity, Microsoft Office reigns supreme. Its dominating position atop the word processing, spreadsheet, and presentations heap seems virtually unassailable. Its file formats define an industry, and its component applications are often synonymous with the underlying tasks they perform. That's not a presentation file you're displaying -- it's a PowerPoint deck. You don't punch numbers into a spreadsheet; you update your Excel Workbook. And if you're going to send out that memo company-wide, better make sure it's attached as a Word doc.
There's no doubt about it: Office's roots run deep -- deeper, even, than its host OS, Microsoft Windows. People talk about switching Windows versions all the time. However, few souls are willing to walk away from their current version of Office for fear of losing interoperability with their peers, a fact that makes dislodging this sprawling, well-entrenched entity all the more daunting -- though many alternative productivity suites and SaaS offerings continue to try.
For would-be Office competitors, to even consider taking on the king of the hill requires that you first master the lingua franca of the Office file formats -- a task that's a lot trickier than it sounds. In fact, until you can successfully exchange data with the market leader (and by "successfully," I mean "seamlessly," without any significant rendering quirks or data loss), few independent users and no Microsoft-oriented IT shop will take you seriously.
So it was with an eye toward the all-important requirement of seamless interoperability that I evaluated the latest and greatest that the competition has to offer. In the following sections, I take a look at OpenOffice.org 3.1 and SoftMaker 2008 to determine if these suites have what it takes to stage the ultimate palace coup and bring down the king once and for all. I also explore the recently leaked Microsoft Office 2010 Community Technical Preview (CTP) build and explain why I believe that the company's flagship productivity offering is so hard to kill. (Hint: It's the ecosystem, stupid.)
Finally, I've put together a rogue's gallery of interoperability blunders that I documented during lab testing. Some of these examples you need to see in order to believe. And for the truly curious, I've provided a link to the Word 2003 "torture test" document used to expose the current state of third-party Microsoft file format compatibility.
All in all, my trip through these Office killers was quite the adventure. Grab a cup of coffee, fire up your favorite Office alternative, and see if my harrowing experiences with OpenOffice.org 3.1 and SoftMaker Office 2008/2009 ring familiar.