If there’s been one constant on the enterprise desktop for the last ten years or so it has been Microsoft Office. Office, including Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, and Excel are as much as part of the standard set of tools as is the telephone, desk, and chair. But in the last few weeks we’ve seen a tremendous amount of news around Microsoft Office competitors. Is the writing on the wall for Microsoft’s venerable productivity suite?
Nary has a week gone by in the last two months without at least one or two announcements from new competitors for Microsoft Office. First, Yahoo purchased open-source Exchange/Outlook competitor Zimbra, with speculation around Yahoo’s desire to leverage Zimbra to deliver a suite of hosted Office applications. Google Office, the free suite of web-based applications added a presentation tool. IBM released Symphony, the OpenOffice-based free competitor to Microsoft Office. Adobe has purchased Virtual Ubiquity, maker of the Buzzword web-based office suite. And others such as ThinkFree and Zoho also aim to compete in the on-line office suite market.
Microsoft hasn’t been quiet. Last week they unveiled "Microsoft Office Live Workspace" a hosted document sharing application similar to SharePoint, allowing users to store and share documents with others. However MOLW doesn't include document creation capabilities of its own, rather one must use another editor (and it’s still an open question as to whether people will use hosted document sharing services versus continuing to exchange files via e-mail).
Why all the competition for a set of applications that seems to satisfy most users’ needs? That’s not all that clear at the moment. Certainly for home users, small businesses, and perhaps college students, free on-line services or open-source software makes perfect sense for generating the occasional paper or creating basic spreadsheets. But within larger enterprises, Microsoft Office has become entrenched as an application environment, with thousands of custom, and highly sophisticated spreadsheets, presentations, and Word-based forms. Convincing enterprises to abandon Microsoft Office to save a few hundred dollars per desktop is not an easy chance, especially since I don’t believe most enterprise IT shops see replacing Microsoft Office as a pressing requirement at the moment, though I have spoken to a few that are looking at applications such as Google Office for guest workers or contractors.
It’s not often you get a tremendous amount of movement in a market as mature as office application suites, but it will be interesting to see if these applications emerge as solid competitors to Microsoft Office in the enterprise. At this point I don’t see it happening.