Open Source a Better Fit in Small Shops

 
 
By Anne Chen  |  Posted 2004-04-26
 
 
 

eWEEK Labs often hears IT managers express a desire to loosen Microsoft Corp.s grip on the office productivity market by deploying alternative office suites. The continuing maturation of open-source office applications, along with the fact that these applications have no licensing fees, makes such a move increasingly attractive—but not for all companies.

Click here to read the results of the eVal.
Find out how we tested here.

Open-source office suites such as the OpenOffice.org projects OpenOffice.org have the best chance of eroding Microsofts stronghold in small and midsize businesses, where paying licensing fees for Office may not make financial sense.

The OpenOffice.org suite now claims a 7 percent share of the midsize business market, according to Jupiter Research, the research division of Jupitermedia Corp., in Darien, Conn.

FN Manufacturing Inc., whose business case eWEEK Labs used to design this eValuation, has about 300 users at its headquarters in Columbia, S.C., making it an ideal target for open source. Ed Benincasa, FN Manufacturings vice president of MIS and an eWEEK Corporate Partner, said that cost is the biggest driver in evaluating open source but that user satisfaction and productivity are important considerations.

"Our issue is cost, and software is where most of our upgrade expenses lie," said Benincasa. "Paying for an upgrade when few users will use new functionality is something Im reluctant to do if I can get what I need from OpenOffice."

At larger sites, however, volume licensing significantly mitigates the cost savings of open source, making the move from Microsoft Office far less attractive.

Corporate Partner site Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., for example, has a user base of 25,000 and benefits from Microsofts volume licensing program. While open-source software suites are free, the ancillary costs associated with a move from Microsoft Office would be much higher for an enterprise of Dukes size than for a company like FN Manufacturing.

Jeff Worboys, product line manager for desktop productivity applications at Duke Energy, said during the eValuation that the time and money spent on migration, deployment, maintenance and training, as well as potential user productivity loss, would be too high to justify any return on investment in OpenOffice.org at this time.

While Benincasa estimates that FN Manufacturing would pay as much as $400 per seat for Microsoft Office 2003, Duke Energys volume licensing agreement would make an upgrade to the latest Microsoft Office suite much less expensive, said Kevin Wilson, product line manager of desktop hardware at Duke Energy and an eWEEK Corporate Partner. (Wilson would not estimate a specific cost per seat.)

"Large enterprises using multiple Microsoft products will usually have contracts in place to dramatically lower the per-seat cost for those Microsoft products," Wilson said. Duke Energy is standardized on Office 2000.

With open source, support can be a sticky issue. Like most open-source projects, OpenOffice.org does not provide formal support for the application suite. However, there are third-party providers that do. Benincasa said he has never needed support for Office applications, so OpenOffice.orgs lack of support will not weigh heavily in his migration decision.

Benincasa also feels comfortable that file-format compatibility will not be a problem if FN Manufacturing moves to OpenOffice.org (even if some of his users dont), but it is a concern at Duke Energy.

While OpenOffice.org project leaders claim OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 can translate Office files with up to 90 percent accuracy, complex formatting can widen that 10 percent gap—a situation eWEEK Labs saw while opening PowerPoint presentations with OpenOffice.orgs Impress application during testing at FN Manufacturing.

This is not to say that open-source office suites are out of the question for companies like Duke Energy. Worboys said he tracks the functionality of Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org, looking for a magic crossing point where the open-source office suite will be appropriate for Duke.

"There is still a lot of maturing to be done before we move in that direction," Worboys said. "Of course, if I were starting out a small business, my approach would probably be very different."

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