Microsoft Office: A First Choice, Or A Last Resort? - InformationWeek

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7/7/2009
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Microsoft Office: A First Choice, Or A Last Resort?

OpenOffice.org has certainly come a long way in its effort to match Microsoft Office. But has it come far enough?

OpenOffice.org has certainly come a long way in its effort to match Microsoft Office. But has it come far enough?I use OpenOffice.org on a daily basis, and I am generally very satisfied with it. It delivers a great deal of functionality, and of course, it doesn't cost anything to use. That makes it a compelling alternative to Microsoft Office for small businesses that simply can't afford to pay hundreds of dollars a seat for a software suite packed with features most of them will never use.

Clearly, however, OpenOffice.org lacks certain advanced features found in Office. Just as clearly, OpenOffice.org can't shake nagging compatibility issues with some types of Office documents. For example, the process of round-tripping documents between OpenOffice.org Writer and Microsoft Word 2007 can expose some nasty formatting bugs.

Does that make OpenOffice.org a poor choice for some businesses? Yes. Is shelling out hundreds of dollars for a Microsoft Office license the only solution? Of course not.

InfoWorld recently published a review comparing OpenOffice.org and a competing business productivity tool, SoftMaker Office. The review compared the two products on a number of points, but the most interesting comparison involved each product's ability to interoperate with Microsoft Office documents.

The results of this "Office-compatibility torture test" are illuminating. SoftMaker Office, for instance, did a far better job rendering both Word 2003 and Word 2007 documents, including embedded charts and drawings. OpenOffice.org, by comparison, often reduced the same documents to "gibberish" when it attempted either to import or to save documents in a default Office format.

And this was true in spite of the fact that the latest version of SoftMaker Office is still in beta release. It's an amazing display of software-development proficiency, given the fact that SoftMaker has a staff of fewer than 20 full-time employees.

(SoftMaker Office, by the way, is a proprietary application. Versions are available for both Windows and Linux systems, and a software license currently costs around $80 per seat.)

A handful of compatibility tests, however, don't tell the entire story. First and foremost, keep in mind that Microsoft itself can't seem to avoid document-compatibility issues involving different formats (.doc versus .docx) and versions (Office 2003 versus 2007). Like many people, I have witnessed these compatibility snafus at first hand, and they can be just as nasty as anything OpenOffice.org dishes out.

Next, pay attention to the costs associated with each of these products: Microsoft Office 2007 is very expensive, and many people find its interface nearly unusable. (Personally, I kind of like it.) It delivers a feature set that no other business productivity suite can touch, yet the vast majority of business users will never need this level of functionality.

OpenOffice.org doesn't cost anything to use. (If you want the same product with access to professional tech support, you can buy a copy of StarOffice instead.) Its user interface will be more familiar to old-school Office users, and it delivers all of the functionality a typical small business requires. It can be a desktop resource hog, however, and it clearly has round-trip document compatibility issues with newer Microsoft Office formats.

Softmaker Office isn't free, and it isn't open-source software. But it is very inexpensive compared to Office 2007, and it apparently does a much better job with Office document compatibility. It is also very thrifty with system resources, making it a great choice for netbooks, mobile devices, or older PCs. On the other hand, SoftMaker offers a somewhat smaller feature set than either OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Office.

This comparison isn't even close to comprehensive. As anyone who reads this must know, there are probably dozens of products that attempt to compete on some level against Microsoft Office.

This brings us back to my original question: Has OpenOffice.org come far enough to represent a real alternative to Microsoft Office. The answer is yes -- in some cases, for some types of user.

The same is true of SoftMaker Office, AbiWord, KOffice, Google Docs, and all of the other pretenders to the Office throne. Even within the OpenOffice.org ecosystem, various related projects will appeal to different sets of users.

Can your small business live without the next Microsoft Office upgrade? I suggest turning the question around: Instead of viewing Office as a first choice, regard it as a last resort. Evaluate other, less expensive solutions; compare their reliability and functionality to your company's business needs; and then decide whether it makes sense to move up the business-productivity food chain.

If this journey ends with a paid-up Microsoft Office license, then at least it will be a rational investment based upon an informed decision. Honestly, that's more than I can say about so many struggling small companies that seem to think paying hundreds of dollars for software they don't need represents a sound business decision.

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