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Microsoft Office alternatives give mobile users flexible productivity software

Office productivity software alternatives from IBM, Huddle and others now integrate more mobile, social and collaboration features for the enterprise.

Microsoft's productivity software, long considered the gold standard, now has competition from enterprise-grade Office alternatives that deliver mobile, social and collaboration capabilities to end users on any device they choose.

Companies such as Box, Huddle, Apple and IBM have staked claims in an industry dominated by Microsoft Office and provide cloud-based and on-premises productivity suites that will affect how enterprises work.

"Collaboration is generally the first set of applications an organization will deploy in the cloud," said Vanessa Thompson, research manager for IDC's enterprise social networks and collaborative technologies program.

With that, Microsoft continues to push its Web-based Office 365 cash cow to businesses.

"Office 365 is essentially the roll-up of the on-premises productivity suite, so a clear advantage is that users know their way around the core Microsoft components, [including] Office, Excel etc.," Thompson said. "In other third-party solutions, they need to provide some way to preview the variety of file types and then edit [or] annotate on them."

Microsoft Office Mobile for iPhone is available, but only for Office 365 end users, and the glaring lack of an iPad application has driven end users to seek alternatives. And there are plenty.

Box unveiled Box Notes this week, enabling content editing and collaboration capabilities within its platform, while Huddle launched its Connected Desktop, a platform that ties into existing Microsoft Office productivity software but adds a collaboration layer on top for working in the cloud.

IBM updated its IBM SmartCloud suite, and Apple now offers itsiWork productivity suite on new iOS 7 devices for free.

Huddle, IBM update collaboration tools

Huddle's cloud-based Connected Desktop works with existing applications such as Microsoft Office on a PC or Mac. It ties together Office documents, Outlook emails, pictures, videos and other files relevant to groups collaborating on projects.

For example, Huddle for Outlook will take attachments from email strings and place them in the cloud. This allows those working on a project to find documents and associated commentary in an organized fashion without worrying that the attachments are stored in a co-worker's email.

"The cloud is becoming ubiquitous, and it's not just a place to store stuff but a place to get work done," said Alastair Mitchell, CEO of Huddle in London. "It's replacing the shared drive and VPN, and the next generation is the productivity apps."

Huddle's platform provides the same end-user experience on any device, whether it's a PC or a smartphone.

In addition, activity streams enable end users to be notified when documents have changed and provide a social presence similar to what end users might be already be familiar with in Twitter and Facebook. An intelligent engine organizes content and delivers only relevant information to end users.

Connected Desktop also contains security layers and administrative capabilities that meet most government and enterprise compliance standards.

Meanwhile, IBM this week moved its cloud-based Social Business software forward with improvements to help IT shops migrate their business processes to the cloud.

The company said the new software is a way to increase productivity not just among desk-bound workers, but also mobile workers using smartphones and tablets.

Updates were delivered for SmartCloud Connections that feature File Synch and Share, allowing line of business managers to access and share cloud-based documents. IBM also revised SmartCloud Communities with new social-bridging features, offering market teams a single view into all their social data.

In addition, IBM released SmartCloud Docs, designed to bring office productivity tools closer to social media so users can collaboratively create and share word processor documents and spreadsheets across Apple- and Windows-based devices.

IBM SmartCloud is considered a direct competitor to Microsoft Office 365, but it integrates its own productivity software suite, Web meetings and video-conferencing capabilities. In addition, a free guest model enables enterprises to set up an account to work with customers on projects.

One IT professional likes what he sees in the new IBM product and plans to use the software in-house.

"Given how we want to implement and use these offerings, the cloud does not support some of that," said Nigel Fortlage, vice president of IT and social business leader at GHY International, a provider of Canadian and U.S. customs brokerage services in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

However, Microsoft Office alternatives from competitors lack 100% compatibility with older versions of Office, and that may be what keeps people using -- and waiting for -- Microsoft Office for tablets and smartphones.

"The good thing about Office Web Apps [OWA] is they provide full fidelity -- compatibility -- with older versions of Office," said Melissa Webster, an IDC analyst who focuses on content and media technologies. "Most competitors get 90% fidelity, and they think it is good enough, and for consumers that is fine. But for those needing documents formatted to meet say, an ISO compliance insurance form, that's different."

Webster noted that Office 365 has attained an annual run rate of $1.5 billion, reported in the company's fiscal fourth quarter, which ended June 30. This is up from a $1 billion annual rate reported in the previous quarter.

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