Once upon a time, the likes of Microsoft, Lotus and Corel fought it out for office suite supremacy in the boardrooms of IT decision makers and in the pages of trade publications. Microsoft Corp. handily won the battle, brandishing its Office suite.
Now, driven by the emergence of the open-source development model—and a wider embrace of open standards among major IT vendors and consumers— office politics are heating up again.
Microsoft Office alternatives such as the recently released OpenOffice.org 2.0—sporting the XML-based and broadly backed OpenDocument file format—threaten to cut short the Pax Redmondia under which knowledge workers have drafted documents, crunched numbers and cranked out presentation slides for years now.
Of course, Microsoft isnt standing still: The company has a new version of Office on tap (code-named Office 12) thats set to break new ground in interface design and extensibility. In addition, the suite will ship with its own XML-based—albeit unilaterally developed and implemented—default file format.
With their low (or no) licensing costs and wide platform support, open-source Office alternatives are certainly tempting. But organizations considering a productivity suite move—whether a move from an earlier version of Office to the latest and greatest or a migration away from Office, wholesale or piecemeal—must take into account the impact of such a move on interoperability, cost and development flexibility, both now and moving forward.
One of the primary benefits that Office alternatives offer is support for a much wider range of hardware and software platforms—including Linux, Solaris and FreeBSD—than is likely ever to jibe with Microsofts Windows-centric strategies. However, while desktop Linux is maturing quickly, most organizations are understandably less inclined to prize Penguin friendliness over the more immediate concern of compatibility with Microsofts de facto standard file formats.
In eWEEK Labs tests of Office alternatives and in extended use of OpenOffice. org, weve experienced good results opening and creating Microsoft Office documents, but compatibility issues do sometimes arise. One of the most common—and most easily corrected—sources of incorrect document rendering is missing fonts, which can change paragraph lengths and pagination and can shift floating elements out of alignment.
Obviously, features Office has that its competitors dont also will lead to document inconsistencies. For example, Word 2003s document protection feature allows users to prevent collaborators from changing certain document attributes, such as fonts or styles, as long as those collaborators are using Word 2003. With Sun Microsystems Inc.s StarOffice Writer or with earlier versions of Word, these restrictions are ignored.
To ensure that documents you create render the way you intend them to, its a good idea to use Adobe Systems Inc.s PDF. There are multiple PDF readers for nearly every platform were aware of, and PDF can serve well as an output format for documents, presentations, and charts and graphs.
OpenOffice.org 2.0 and the StarOffice 8 suite both offer an export-to-PDF feature. Microsofts Office "12" will ship with PDF export capabilities, and PDF support can be added to current versions of Office through a plug-in from Adobe.
Theres no question that, for now, any discussion of office document format compatibility must center on Microsofts current binary Office formats. But even if you have no plans whatsoever to move from Office, youll eventually have to migrate to new XML-based file formats.
OpenOffice.org and StarOffice have shipped with XML-based formats for a few versions now, and Microsofts Office 12 will ship with similar XML-based formats. The shift to XML formats makes sense: XML-based documents lend themselves to programmatic access and inclusion in SOAs (service-oriented architectures) much more than binary formats do.
OpenOffice.org, StarOffice 8, KOffice and other Microsoft Office alternatives are standardizing on a format called OpenDocument, which was developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, or OASIS, industry consortium and is based on the XML file format originally implemented in OpenOffice.org. Microsoft has said it will not support OpenDocument, and, while OpenOffice.org and StarOffice now support the first-generation XML formats that Microsoft introduced in Office 2003, its not clear whether the license under which Microsoft is releasing its formats will allow most open-source-licensed projects to support Microsofts XML formats moving forward.
In explaining its rejection of OpenDocument, Microsoft has stated that the format doesnt sufficiently encapsulate the functionality of its Office products, but it was Microsoft—an OASIS member—that opted not to participate in the drafting of the OpenDocument standard.
IT administrators should consider the reverse of Microsofts argument when weighing OpenDocument and the applications that include it against Office and its forthcoming XML formats: To what extent will Microsofts unilaterally designed new formats sufficiently serve the needs of application and solution providers, whose offerings IT administrators will have to integrate with their own legacy systems?
Ultimately, the promise of open file formats is that file formats neednt be a deciding factor in choosing office suite applications—organizations should be able to choose the suite that suits them best. Based on our testing, many of the alternatives to Microsoft Office provide a robust, highly capable application platform. OpenOffice.org 2.0, in particular, offers a range of productivity functionality that compares very well with Microsoft Office.
The Microsoft application that seems to be toughest to upend is Excel, particularly the capabilities in the data analysis tools that are available as an optional install for Excel. Before making any kind of switch from Office, IT managers should look carefully at the use of Excel in their organizations.
But organizations looking to reduce software licensing costs through Office alternatives neednt purge their sites of Office applications altogether. Rather, administrators can determine which groups of users could be well-served by a less costly option, as eWEEK Corporate Partner Ed Benincasa has done at FN Manufacturing LLC.
Office alternatives do offer potentially significant savings in software licensing costs—OpenOffice.org 2.0, for one, is free—but software costs cant be measured by license fees alone.
Organizations considering an office suite should carefully consider training costs—if not in money spent on training services, then certainly on reduced productivity during a period of readjustment. With that said, its worth noting that even new Microsoft Office releases require a breaking-in period. ´
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.