In my last column, I suggested that many—maybe even most—Microsoft Office customers would be served just as well and save money by switching to something less expensive, such as Suns Star Office or maybe Corels WordPerfect Office.
While Microsoft once offered a product that included features and functionality that competitive products lacked, including file compatibility with Microsoft Office users, that is no longer true.
In 2004, file compatibility is a given and Im hard-pressed to find customers really taking advantage of such Microsoft-only functionality as exists today. The best reason I can find for most customers to upgrade to Office 2003 is the anti-spam technology and some of the user interface improvements to Outlook. Compelling, but probably not compelling enough for most customers.
Companies using Exchange servers are tied to Microsoft Office, though not completely. Outlook Web Access does an excellent job for most users, and if you dont need a calendar or contact manager, Exchange works very nicely with IMAP and POP mail clients, including Outlook Express. My guess is many customers who swear they need Outlook contacts and calendars dont really use them very much.
If you are not using SharePoint or building custom Office componentry, I am not sure what Office really buys you. Likewise XML, which Microsoft is gaga over but has met a much less enthusiastic response from customers. If you arent trying to do things with the applications that they dont do right out of the box, then Microsoft is selling you a lot of expensive functionality youre not using.
Thats my premise here: Microsoft builds premium software and sells it at premium prices but doesnt do enough to justify the premium. At one time, having a compatible and full-featured set of applications was enough to justify the pricing, but its been a long time since Microsoft has truly created a "must have" new release, and the competitors have caught up.
Microsoft responds with products such as the SharePoint Portal and InfoPath, both aimed at enterprise shops. FrontPage is nice, but it isnt really part of the Office suite, and most people dont create Web pages, anyway. Likewise, Access is clearly not a database for the masses.
Now, I am typing this in Microsoft Word. I am doing so on a machine that also happens to have a copy of WordPerfect installed and I am not using it. I also have various versions of OpenOffice and StarOffice, but I am not using those, either.
But just because I do this doesnt mean you should. After all, I get my software for free and am paid to keep close watch on all things Microsoft. And, heck, I like Word a lot and see no reason to change. Though next time I write a book or some other really long document, I will do it in WordPerfect, which seems better-suited for documents of more than 10,000 words than Microsoft Word. And I actually use Exchange Server features, especially the free server-side spam filtering.
But if I was spending money on software, I dont think this would be enough. Sure, for home use the education version of Office is a good deal for between $129 and $149, but StarOffice is still $80 and OpenOffice is free. At $149 a WordPerfect upgrade is typically less expensive than a Microsoft Office upgrade, though only by about $50. That doesnt seem like a huge incentive to me. If Corel were really serious about competing, WordPerfect Office would cost $99 everyday, a price I suspect is available to quantity purchasers.
For people buying new, WordPerfect Office and Microsoft Office can cost about the same, which again speaks to lowering the pricing if Corel wants to pick up switchers. At $80 per copy, Sun clearly makes StarOffice a much less expensive alternative.
For Microsoft to hold on to market share, I think the company needs to find a way to tie customers more closely to Office. Not against their will, mind you, but by offering enhanced functionality that only works in a Microsoft environment.
There are signs Redmond is headed in this direction. We hear rumors of small business contact management and accounting closely linked to Microsoft Outlook and the MSN online network. For collaboration, SharePoint is a winner, if only as a common file repository for workgroups, but needs to find life as a peer-to-peer product rather than requiring a special server. Microsoft has an investment in Groove Networks that makes me think this is possible.
I like what Microsoft has done with its mapping, Web creation, photo editing, and publishing software, but none of it really works better because you have Office installed (or any of Microsofts other products). And for business users who dont care about these sorts of applications, even a tighter integration into Office and the Microsoft desktop wont help.
InfoPath is useful only if the IT department wants to make it useful; its not a forms tool for the masses like OmniForm. OneNote is interesting only if you have a Tablet PC, though the SP2 upgrade turns the program from ho-hum into something I am thinking about actually using.
But none of this really gets me very excited. What I need is for Microsoft to show me something that gets me excited, the sort of thing Id call my friends about. I need to see something that shouts "only Microsoft could do this" and makes me glad for all the other Microsoft stuff I use. When Microsoft delivers that, it will be back on the road to earning its market dominance and deserving premium pricing. In the meantime, Microsoft Office users should shop around.
eWEEK.com Correspondent David Coursey has spent nearly two decades writing about Microsoft for a variety of publications. Write him at email@example.com.