Microsoft Office 2010 is due out in the first half of next year, leading organisations to ask, once again, whether they should stay with the familiar Office suite or opt for an alternative.
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With Google, IBM, Sun, OpenOffice.org and innumerable Web 2.0 companies offering strong alternatives to Office, now could be the time to switch platforms.
David Bradshaw, research manager at IDC, said that business should always question the cost of their productivity tools. "There are costs associated with continuing to go for Office, either directly or through an enterprise agreement, and people should ask whether they really need all the features."
He added that the closest alternative to Microsoft Office is now the open source-based OpenOffice suite. "OpenOffice compares well with Office, and is perfectly adequate."
When used interchangeably, users will find differences and minor incompatibilities, such as colours and charts not matching up, said Bradshaw, so user training will have to be considered when migrating to a Microsoft alternative. But he pointed out that people had to learn how to use the new Office 2007 ribbon interface, which replaced the traditional Office tab system.
One of the most significant changes between Office 2007 and 2010 is the ability to share documents via the web, possibly using Microsoft's file sharing service Live Mesh, which is in beta. This will be a useful feature for many distributed workers, but Bradshaw noted that the web-based Google Docs and Zoho office suite both offer online collaboration capabilities already.
Kyle McNabb, research director at Forrester Research, said enterprises have an unprecedented choice of desktop productivity tools. These include OpenOffice, Sun Microsystem's sister suite StarOffice, and Web 2.0 tools such as ThinkFree and Zoho.
However, McNabb noted that enterprise adoption of alternatives to Microsoft Office is extremely low. For example, OpenOffice.org has had more than 130 million downloads worldwide, but less than 10% of these move to production. Also, OpenOffice use is heavily concentrated in the public sector and in emerging nations.
McNabb said Google Apps Premier Edition has won some enterprise interest for its e-mail and calendaring features, though adoption figures are also low.
Google Docs, in particular, offers the ability to create and share work online, upload from, and save to, the desktop, and edit files from anywhere. Also, files are stored securely online.
Although Google's productivity tools are much less feature-rich than Office, which has the benefit of being a thick client application, Google's aim is for its offerings to be both lightweight and easy to use.
In fact, McNabb predicts that Google will eventually have the edge over its thick-client rivals.
"Future adoption of Google Docs may outpace OpenOffice.org over the next three years as enterprises embrace Google's mail and calendaring support as an alternative to Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Notes," he said.
Case Study: Tangible gets GroupWise
Corporate marketing firm Tangible Group switched from Microsoft to Novell GroupWise.
David Watson, head of IT at Tangible, said the firm chose to migrate from a mixture of Microsoft Exchange/Office, Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise for solid business reasons.
Scalability was one, as the group was integrating several companies. Cost savings were another, as GroupWise offered significant reductions compared to the competition, particularly Microsoft. The Lotus Notes servers would also be costly to upgrade and update.
"In addition, with the significant differences between platforms, we would have had to retrain our entire IT team to use the new system," said Watson.
Other important factors were reliability and security. "Years of experience using GroupWise has proven that it is a secure and stable platform for us to work on, especially GroupWise 8, as Tangible was a Lighthouse Site for this version, running on SLES [Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server]."
Usability was an important consideration. "We found that staff using the Lotus Notes system were delighted to move away from the platform. In fact, Lotus users took easily to GroupWise and embraced the change to a faster and more up-to-date platform. Even initially reluctant Outlook users have eventually warmed to GroupWise's charms," said Watson.