Thinking the Unthinkable: Switching from MS Office

The bandwagon is hardly speeding out of control, but some IT managers are considering leaving Microsoft Office behind.
Spring follows winter, objects fall down and enterprises standardize on Microsoft Office. Nobody questions the first two aphorisms but some information technology (IT) professionals are considering ignoring the third.

"We used to use Microsoft Office, but we've migrated everybody to OpenOffice," said Scott Testa, chief operating officer of Mindbridge, which develops software for intranets. OpenOffice is a free version of Sun Microsystem's StarOffice suite.

"I'm definitely considering Office alternatives," said Greg Gomez, IT director of McKee Wallwork Henderson Advertising in Albuquerque, N.M.

Nobody expects a widespread revolt against Microsoft Office but observers say that, in certain circumstances, IT shops would do well to consider the alternatives.

Pricing and Licensing

In addition to Sun's suites, the primary Office alternative these days is Corel's WordPerfect Office. Both companies recently released major updates Microsoft said it would release its new version of Office later this summer. IBM still sells Lotus SmartSuite, but it has not upgraded the suite recently.

One compelling reason to consider switching office suites is price. The standard edition of WordPerfect Office 11 retails for about $299 and includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program and the Paradox database program. Microsoft Office users can upgrade to WordPerfect Office for $149 per seat, retail. StarOffice 6.0 retails for about $79 and doesn't include a database component but does have a drawing program. OpenOffice is free.

By contrast, the standard edition of Microsoft Office XP, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, retails for $479. The retail price for upgrading currently is $239. All suite vendors offer volume discounts.

Testa estimated that, by using the free OpenOffice, he has saved about $400 per workstation. He noted that most of his employees are technically savvy and learned the new suite on their own, so training, which can be a significant cost when switching software, wasn't an issue.

Besides saving money, some IT managers are unhappy with Microsoft's licensing policies, which some say are overly complex and aren't always as cost-effective as Microsoft has claimed.

"If one thing got people thinking about switching, it's how Microsoft has been handling licensing," said Michael Silver, vice president and research director of Gartner, Inc.

"Microsoft's new licensing strategy is that every three years you have to upgrade, and after that you're on your own," Gomez complained. "I'm also concerned about the collateral costs like the time I spend keeping track of licenses. If we don't have enough (licenses), I have to go through a vendor to get more. To do that, I have to go through our accounting department and, right now, that's eating up a fair amount of my time. It irks me that, once you're on the Microsoft treadmill, it's never-ending."

Other Expenses

IT managers know, of course, that purchase price and licensing are only two of many issues to consider.

"The big issue that enterprises must consider (when switching office suites) is compatibility," said Silver. "You can have problems if you need 100% fidelity."

Besides exchanging documents with people outside your company, enterprises have large storehouses of Office-created documents with which compatibility may be an issue.

"If you have heavy users creating complicating documents, that's one thing," Silver said. "The simpler the document is, the more likely it is that something like StarOffice or WordPerfect Office can read it with good fidelity."

Another important compatibility issue relates to macros and applications written for Microsoft Office, which often don't translate well to other suites. Testa said he has encountered some compatibility problems, but not often.

"If somebody sends over a relatively complex word document with a lot of macros in it, sometimes OpenOffice has trouble converting and opening it," he said. "That happens, maybe, one percent of the time. The incompatibilities are a lot less than we had thought."

The Best Candidates

Some types of enterprises are better candidates for switching away from Microsoft Office than others, IT managers and analysts agreed. In particular, small companies and those thinking of moving toward Linux desktops are good candidates. Obviously, the former group is quite large while the latter is relatively small.

Gomez said he is thinking of switching desktops in his small enterprise to Linux, which he said will both save money and give him greater leverage over applications.

"If you want to fully leverage all of Office's features, you need a pretty strong programming staff in your IT department," Gomez said. "This is a small business and I don't have that luxury, so a lot of the Microsoft Office feature set is lost to me."

If he switches desktops from Windows to Linux, he can use StarOffice, which offers a Linux version, something that neither Microsoft nor Corel offers.

"There's a huge (Linux) developer's community out there, so I can find (office suite) applications that already exist that are free and require only minor modifications," he said.

Besides small businesses and those thinking of switching to Linux for the desktop, enterprises that are standardized on Microsoft Office 97 also are possible candidates for switching, Silver noted. Microsoft has said it is ending support for Office 97 next January.

"If you're running Office 97, you could consider moving (to another suite) if you're worried about support." He predicted that such a migration would happen in some shops, but not for a while.

"There's an opening for the Office alternatives in the 2004-2005 timeframe as Office 97 gets older and IT shops have gone a year or two without support," Silver said. "Then, if budgets are tight, something like StarOffice may look very attractive."

However, even the best candidates for switching office suites must break a long-standing habit.

"Whether we love it or hate it, we think intuitively in Windows and Office because we were raised that way," Gomez said. "Switching will take some energy."

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