Do enterprises even need Microsoft Office anymore?

IT shops are weighing the alternatives to Microsoft Office. Check out OpenOffice and Google Apps and Google Docs to see if they'll meet your needs.

With Microsoft Office 15 coming out, many folks may be asking: Do business users really even need Office anymore? Aren't there alternatives better suited to cloud and mobile computing?

Here are a couple of alternatives to consider when evaluating your workplace needs. They are available now, and from a top-line perspective, they may make a lot of financial sense for basic business purposes.

  • Apache OpenOffice. The OpenOffice suite is probably the Microsoft Office alternative that comes closest to Microsoft's capabilities. For the most part, it's free. Even old software giant IBM has been marketing OpenOffice alongside its Lotus Notes and Domino products as a completely viable Office alternative. And the truth is, for basic tasks, OpenOffice does just fine. Some technical and academic publishers use its word-processor equivalent, called Writer, for developing even the most in-depth manuscripts. The Calc spreadsheet doesn't have some of the advanced data mining features of Excel, but it is up to the task for the majority of budget spreadsheets, forecasts and table-based information organizers. Many folks say that using OpenOffice is like using Office if it had stuck with its old menu-driven interface and never moved to the ribbon.
  • Google Apps and Google Docs. Of all of the Microsoft Office alternatives here, I find the Google software suite the least compelling. For one, it's nowhere near as full-featured as the other desktop office suites. Second, it's based on the Web, so without some clunky software, you can't use it offline -- no work on the plane, no work in a place with pay-for Internet, and so on. Finally, Google reserves the right to snoop through all of your documents. For personal email and personal Office documents, that may be an acceptable tradeoff, but the privacy and security implications of allowing a third party to mine business data to target advertisements can violate even simple nondisclosure agreements. If you do business with a Fortune 500 firm, it’s not likely you can use Google Docs without getting a special exception from your vendor agreement. Why bother, for an inferior product?

For the majority of business users, OpenOffice is a free alternative that should be sufficient. And it could save your organization money by removing the need to get on board the Microsoft upgrade train and fork over license fees for any employee who uses Office.

Nevertheless, there are a few reasons why the decision is not as clearly delineated as you might imagine.

  • Software Assurance and other volume-license programs. For midsize and larger companies, the allure of volume-license agreements such as Software Assurance is that, for a fixed fee per license per year, they're covered for any upgrades that become available. Depending on how many licenses your agreement covers, the price per seat for Office can be less than $100, and you are entitled to no-cost upgrades to any versions that are released for the duration of your active agreement. So Office licenses may not represent a huge corporate expense, and upgrades are typically already included.
  • File compatibility. OpenOffice exchanges documents well in the old DOC and XLS formats, but it suffers when using the XML-based DOCX and XLSX file formats introduced in Office 2007. Now that many companies are using these more recent versions, exchanging documents in the older versions becomes a hassle and a source of frequent help desk calls for which one response is "Did you remember to Save As?"
  • "Better together" features. If you're in an Exchange shop, you want Outlook for your Windows users. That's a given. If you use SharePoint, you lose a lot of user-friendly integration features within the productivity products when you choose OpenOffice. So if you have to pay for Outlook and use SharePoint internally, and you can get the rest of the suite for not much more, why wouldn't you?


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