In recent years, open-source alternatives to Office have matured to the point where IT managers are beginning to investigate the viability of moving from the Microsoft Corp. suite to a freely-licensed alternative. So when eWEEK Corporate Partner Ed Benincasa shared his desire to perform a user-based comparison between the OpenOffice.org project's OpenOffice.org suite and Microsoft's Office 2003, we saw a perfect opportunity to compare the suites under real-world conditions.
Benincasa is vice president of MIS at precision machining manufacturer FN Manufacturing Inc., in Columbia, S.C. Microsoft Office 97 and Office 2000 are deployed to the 300-plus users at the site, and Benincasa is evaluating whether to move to Microsoft's latest suite, Office 2003, or the open-source OpenOffice.org 1.1.1.
Benincasa is looking to upgrade because Microsoft has discontinued distribution of new licenses for Office 2000 and Office 97. Benincasa is exploring his office application suite options because he is concerned about the high cost of an upgrade to Office 2003. He also wants to prevent Microsoft's product release and support road map from dictating FN Manufacturing's upgrade timetable.
"I'm not an anti-Microsoft person, and I think Office is a good product," said Benincasa. "However, we are cautious with our IT budget, and I'd prefer to spend money that directly relates to our business, like investing in things like hardware. Office 97 does everything we want it to do, and we would stay on that suite if we could. It pains me to have to spend money for features and functions most of my end users won't even begin to need."
eWEEK Labs traveled to FN Manufacturing to put the two office suites to the test. We worked with Benincasa and members of his IT staff, as well as several representatives of the user population at FN Manufacturing and its related companies-Browning Arms Co., in Ogden, Utah, and parent company Fabrique Nationale (National Weapons Factory), in Herstal, Belgium.
Also participating in the testing were Corporate Partner Kevin Wilson, product line manager of desktop hardware at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., and Jeff Worboys, Duke's product line manager of desktop productivity applications.
We worked with three groups of users, all of whom currently use Office 97 or 2000 for productivity tasks. We tested OpenOffice.org and Office 2003 with sample documents provided by eWEEK Labs and with the testers' own files. We concentrated our tests on the applications' capability and compatibility, as well as on user training requirements.
During tests, most users had little or no trouble moving from their current suite to OpenOffice.org. However, for more advanced users-especially advanced users of Excel-OpenOffice.org did not fare as well.
"The advanced users already push Microsoft Office to the limits and are constantly looking for more functionality, which OpenOffice. org may not be able to provide," said Tina Sanzone, application analyst at Browning. "For other users, however, we can easily customize OpenOffice.org to make it look pretty close to what they already have."
Users who tested Office 2003 found the suite more polished and easy to use than Office 97 and 2000. However, only a few testers-again, mostly advanced users of Excel-said an upgrade to Office 2003 would provide them significantly more useful functionality.
Benincasa said that he has rolled out OpenOffice.org on shop-floor computers for basic document viewing and that the application works well there.
Those who participated in this eVal seemed, for the most part, receptive to a move to OpenOffice.org, but it's important to keep in mind that they volunteered for the test and, therefore, may be more open to a move than the bulk of Benincasa's users.