Living without Microsoft Office

Do you dare to use open-source or cloud-computing alternatives to replace Office? In some circumstances, it makes sense.

If there's one application that everybody depends on, it's Microsoft Office. The newest Office, though, has met with a mixed reaction, thanks to a changed user interface that caused concern in some quarters as well as increased connections with Microsoft's collaboration technology that have intrigued many in IT -- but are optimized for Vista environments that have been slow to gain adoption.

At the same time, more people are adopting Apple Inc.'s Macintosh, whereas the newest Office incarnation has been roundly criticized for being just a partial implementation of the real thing. And the desktop Linux community is hoping that the emerging class of ultralow-cost PCs and laptops may jump-start adoption -- and a need for Linux-based office productivity software. Thus, the time is right to see if you can live without Microsoft Office.

(Read InfoWorld's comparative review of Google Docs, Lotus Symphony, OpenOffice and Zoho. If you're looking to dump both Office and Windows, find out whether you can really switch to Mac OS X or convert to desktop Linux.)

In the early days of the PC, Microsoft Office faced several vibrant competitors, but today, only a puny WordPerfect survives as a commercial product, and barely at that. Mac users have the option of Apple's iWork suite, which works well for basic tasks but is oriented more toward visual document preparation than enterprise workflow.

But a new generation of competitors -- Google Docs, IBM Lotus Symphony,, and Zoho -- is emerging from two different directions: cloud computing services and open-source software. While businesses have embraced software as a service (SaaS) for enterprise applications from CRM to security, plus open-source software for server operating systems and infrastructure component firmware, they have been far more reluctant to move desktop productivity software to either open source or the cloud. Still, the feature sets and user interfaces of the competition have developed to a point at which they can be considered to be serious options for personal productivity tasks.

So it's plausible to switch to an Office alternative. But how do you go about actually making the switch? There are several factors to work through, since technology is far from the only issue that has to be considered when thinking about a shift from a market leader to less-popular competitor. And each can have a cost.

The cost of training

Businesses considering alternatives to Office of course have to anticipate a steep cost of change. One of the great advantages of Microsoft Office is the number of people who know how to use its applications. In any switch to an alternative, you would likely need to do a good bit of training -- especially of heavy Excel users who tap into the significant and sometimes inherently complex functionality in that product. And don't forget the cost of rewriting all the Excel macros that create the monthly executive dashboard reporting at the company.

The new user interface introduced with Office 2007 is cited by some as creating an opportunity for exploring new applications, since the "ribbon" device used in Office 2007 is so radically different than that of earlier Office versions. An application suite like, which features a user interface similar to that used in Office 2003, could require less user training than the new version of Microsoft Office.

There are many third-party options available for training users on Microsoft Office products. But there are significantly fewer options for training employees in the use of other personal productivity suites. Developing application training courses in-house can be an expensive proposition, though such lessons have the advantage of focusing on an organization's particular use patterns and standards.

Many organizations don't feel it necessary to provide training to every employee on Microsoft Word and Excel, since so many employees come into their positions with experience in the software. That same level of prior knowledge can't be assumed for other packages -- with minor exceptions. In the legal field, for example, WordPerfect is still commonly used, and experience in its use is expected.

If training can be dealt with, there remain other issues, some of which involve software used by partners, customers, and suppliers.

The cost of compatibility

In a market filled with file formats standardized through committee action, the most commonly used document format is Microsoft Word's .doc file. Yes, there are common file formats, like RTF, and many Office alternatives can open and save to Office file formats. But saving back into those formats to share with Office users can be imperfect. In a business world that relies increasingly on collaboration, these file format issues can become show stoppers.

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