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What to consider when looking at Microsoft Office alternatives

Microsoft Office might sit atop the productivity suite mountain, but if IT wants to go in a different direction, it can -- the key is understanding interoperability and support.

Microsoft Office is the de facto productivity suite for business, but not all organizations are happy with this arrangement.

Unfortunately, pulling out of Office is no small feat. Even so, many organizations try, and some even succeed -- but not without facing significant challenges.

Before IT decides to move to a different productivity suite, it should consider the feature parity, integration/interoperability and implementation/support of Microsoft Office alternatives.

Feature parity

Finding Microsoft Office alternatives with the same set of features as Office is hard. Basic capabilities, such as formatting and spell-checking are fairly universal, but some advanced features might be very different or not available at all.

Microsoft Word's macro capabilities, for example, allow users to group a series of commands into a single keystroke to automatically perform a task. With a different word processor, users have to work with the macro features specific to that platform. Users can rewrite the macros in LibreOffice Basic, but for other products, they might need to implement the logic through third-party technologies.

When reviewing Microsoft Office alternatives, IT pros should assess the suites on a product-by-product basis, comparing word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and other applications individually. For example, Google Docs is a cloud-based service that is less feature-rich than Word, but its simpler interface and online collaborative capabilities suit some organizations. On the other hand, if users work with large documents that require extensive editing and processing, IT might want to stick with a desktop alternative, such as WPS Office Writer or LibreOffice Writer.

For many organizations, switching to a different spreadsheet application can be one of the trickiest aspects of migrating to one of the Microsoft Office alternatives. Excel is a mature and sophisticated product that can do some serious number crunching, while providing lots of extras, such as pivot tables and pivot charts. If a new spreadsheet application cannot deliver the features users need, IT must adjust users' workflows or find other ways to deliver that functionality.

In addition, the Office suite includes Outlook. Many users rely heavily on Outlook -- not only for its email but also for its contact and scheduling features and its seamless integration with other Office products. Most Office alternatives don't include an email client.

Organizations can use the desktop version of Office, the cloud version or both, while still getting the kind of integration they expect with the desktop system. Many Microsoft Office alternatives are either desktop-based or cloud-based only. Organizations looking for a hybrid alternative could have their hands full cobbling something together.

Integration and interoperability

If IT decides to move from Office to another platform, it must ensure that it can migrate all its Office documents in all their formats to the new suite. For most standard file formats, this should not be much of a problem. IT might need to reset or reformat components within the documents, but it should be able to retrieve and save the information in its entirety.

This process can represent a significant effort. IT might find it best to export the files to another format from within Word, such as Open Document Format, and then pull the exported files into the new system. In some cases, particularly spreadsheets, IT might have to recreate the files. During the transition, IT should archive the original files so no data is lost in the process. As a result, IT likely has to continue to support Office, while carefully bringing on the new productivity suite.

Regardless of what IT does, the majority of the world remains locked into Office. If users exchange documents with people outside their organization, it could add yet another layer of complexity to the workflow to ensure that everyone can access and edit the files as necessary.

An IT department might also build a significant part of its workflow around the Office suite. For example, IT might implement line-of-business applications that integrate exclusively with Office. In such cases, moving away from Office could represent a significant investment in time and resources to update these systems.

The same goes for all the Microsoft technologies that integrate with Office. If an organization relies on tools such as System Center Configuration Manager, Active Directory or PowerShell, it will lose a wide range of integration capabilities if it drops Office.

Implementation and support

Like it or not, Office applications are the standard for what people expect. Users will measure any Microsoft Office alternatives against Office standards. Even minor changes can represent considerable disruptions in workflow and productivity.

As a result, migrating to a new suite of products can result in significant user frustration and resistance, making the transition all the more difficult. If users don't have the features they need, all-out revolution is possible, with people reverting to their own devices or other workarounds.

Like it or not, Office applications are the standard for what people expect.

Even if users go along with the switch, IT still has to contend with the many issues that can arise when implementing a new system, including reconfiguring desktops and updating virtual desktop images. IT must train users and support them through the transition.

Moving away from Microsoft Office

The IT department might have plenty of administrative expertise to support Office products, but the staff may not know as much about the new product. Another productivity suite, particularly an open source one, might not even come close to what Microsoft provides in terms of vendor support.

Investing in new software carries vendor-related risks as well. Microsoft Office is most likely here to stay, but the future of other products might not be so certain. A vendor could easily go out of business or make radical changes to its product.

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Open source Microsoft Office alternatives can be just as risky. LibreOffice split off from OpenOffice because some of the developers decided to go in a different direction. If the productivity suite IT pros choose stops receiving updates and support, they'll eventually have to shift to another product.

Before making any decisions, conduct a long-term analysis of the true costs of switching to a different productivity suite. If the long-term savings bear out, then decide if making the shift is worth the risks.

Next Steps

How to pick the right version of Office 2016

Mobile alternatives to Microsoft Office

Dive deeper into Office 2016

This was last published in August 2017

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