Over the past couple of weeks, the Linux news headlines have been dominated with the unconfirmed possibility that Microsoft could be releasing its Office suite for Ubuntu users in 2014. Not too many years ago, the idea of Microsoft having anything to do with Linux would have been laughable. Yet thanks to Ubuntu's burgeoning popularity and its recent efforts in the mobile space, Ubuntu has fast become something of a media darling. Could this be a big enough splash that Microsoft has finally taken notice?
Speaking for myself, I believe it's a serious possibility.
Rationale for Ubuntu Support
In a few short years, Microsoft has gone from bashing Linux to embracing many aspects of it. These days, Microsoft is a top contributor to the Linux kernel and also offers Ubuntu fans Skype for Linux. Despite continuing to push the idea that Microsoft products are better than open source alternatives, I think the company is beginning to accept the reality that Linux (Ubuntu specifically) is a force to be reckoned with.
If Microsoft does debut Office for the Linux desktop in 2014, the distribution of choice would likely be Ubuntu to start with, possibly followed by other distributions thereafter.
It will be interesting to see how much functionality Microsoft will provide to Ubuntu users should the Office product come to fruition. Historically, Microsoft has not been known for making Linux a first-class citizen with regard to their software. Therefore, I'm skeptical as to how much emphasis Microsoft will initially pour into an Office product for Linux.
No one can deny that Office for Ubuntu would mean additional revenue for the Redmond software giant in a previously untapped area. Let's face it, the lack of Microsoft Office is indeed something that enterprise users tend to gripe about. It should be noted that LibreOffice and Google Documents already work fine for most of us. But the reality is, once we receive a document formatted for Microsoft Office, trying to convert it into another format is problematic.
Microsoft toying with releasing a version of Microsoft Office for Ubuntu is a very big deal. It could put to bed for good the excuse of needing Microsoft Office as a reason for not switching to Ubuntu. Oh sure, Microsoft Office isn't a cure-all for every company out there, but it's a darn good place to start. And if Microsoft is supporting an office suite for a specific desktop distribution of Linux such as Ubuntu, then that distribution essentially becomes the go-to distribution within the enterprise space.
Enterprise users of Microsoft Office have been very clear that they feel the proprietary office suite looks better, performs better and offers far greater functionality. Speaking for myself, I think the ribbon interface is ghastly and performance is in the eye of the beholder. Still, the point about far greater functionality does hold some truth. Even with all of the extensions available for LibreOffice, Microsoft Office offers functionality and bundled templates not found in its open source alternatives.
At the end of the day, much of the world is still heavily reliant on Microsoft Office products. So if we could get the rest of the world to kick the habit, then migrating folks to open source office suites would be a whole lot simpler.
The Release of LibreOffice 4.0
On the heels of the news that Microsoft is rumored to release MS Office for Ubuntu in 2014, is the release of LibreOffice 4.0. For LibreOffice fans, it's a great release due to some additional focus on quality control, bug fixes and other related issues.
I would like to say that the tired-looking user interface is finally getting a badly needed facelift—especially considering the countless mock-ups we've seen in the past. Sadly though, LibreOffice didn't even benefit from a simple icon refresh. To further rub salt in the wounds, LibreOffice is supporting Firefox Personas. This means you can "theme" your LibreOffice menu bar with personalized themes, yet the icon set for the office suite will still feel like a blast from the 1990s.
Can LibreOffice win over enterprise users, if a Microsoft Office release becomes available?
Not a chance.
The fact of the matter is, while LibreOffice will remain a solid choice for me, enterprise users will choose the office suite with greater functionality overall.
On a positive note, LibreOffice 4.0 has addressed important issues, such as improved interoperability with DOCX and RTF documents. And I must admit, the new remote control for Impress is a very pleasant surprise. You can find the full list of new features and bug fixes on the LibreOffice website.
Google Docs to the Rescue
Unlike LibreOffice, Google Docs has the advantage of being tied to a huge, well-known company that enterprise users are beginning to feel comfortable with. The problem with trusting any Web-based document editor is that you're entrusting your content to strangers. Obviously, this is where a local office suite such as Microsoft Office or LibreOffice wins.
Despite these privacy concerns, companies are adopting Google Docs as a viable option. Huge names in the enterprise space are making the switch—not to LibreOffice or other open source office suites, but to Google enterprise solutions instead. Based on this realization, I believe that Google is going to be the most likely player going head-to-head with Microsoft if MS Office makes an appearance in the Linux space.
Will enterprise users choose Google Docs over Microsoft Office for Linux? In the enterprise world, it's actually already happening. Bundle this with Google Docs being accessible offline through Chrome, and suddenly the comparison between the two office suites comes down to personal preference. Considering the fact that Microsoft would be incredibly late to the Linux market when compared to Google Docs, I don't think Google has anything to worry about.
Microsoft's Potential Linux Niche
Although Google is light years ahead of Microsoft in the office productivity for Linux space, some enterprise environments still prefer a physical office productivity product. And for some of those enterprise users, LibreOffice simply isn't full-featured enough to meet their needs.
Don't misunderstand me, I love LibreOffice despite its dated user interface. It's free, stable and does everything I could possibly want. Because I don't work with a company that requires me use Microsoft Office products, I'm in a unique position to choose the software I want to use.
I also enjoy the functionality offered by Google Docs. And unlike the Microsoft Office suite, Google Docs is available to casual users for free. While it's fair to point out that Microsoft Office 365 is a subscription service like Google's enterprise offerings, the fact is Google makes their tools available for free to casual users such as myself. This is an area Microsoft has yet to get a handle on and because of it, they'll finding winning over new Ubuntu customers a lot harder than they ever imagined.