Microsoft Office Has Pull

Try as they might to switch to open-source and Web-based alternatives, IT pros are sticking with Office.

"Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in."

It would be wrong to compare Microsoft to the family Michael Corleone was referring to in "Godfather Part III," but theres at least one organization that tried to end its association with Microsoft Office, only to be pulled back in.

In 2004, FN Manufacturings Ed Benincasa began evaluating alternatives to Microsoft Office. In fact, he worked with eWEEK Labs to perform a side-by-side, user-based comparison of 1.1.1 and Microsoft Office 2003, to see whether an open-source option would meet his organizations needs. Benincasa and his staff later tested the ThinkFree suite and Version 2.0 of OpenOffice, as well as Linux on the desktop.

But, despite the Office alternatives many attractive qualities, there was one requirement they just couldnt meet in the end: file format compatibility.

"FNM was working very hard at finding alternatives to MS Office," said Benincasa, vice president of MIS, in Columbia, S.C. "We finally dropped the project … [because] no matter how good the other applications may be, unless they are compatible and can read/write to the MS format, they just cannot be used as the only office application. Most of the issues were with page formatting, image integration, etc., that the documents just did not convert correctly."

Benincasa added that compatibility with Office is essential to doing business: "Since we have to maintain compatibility with suppliers and customers, moving to another office application was just not going to work. Since Microsoft Office is the industry leader, no matter if we like it or not, anyone that wants to penetrate their market must be 100 percent compatible with the file formats."

In the end, Benincasa and his staff upgraded FN Manufacturings end users to Office 2003, and they are looking at a possible Office 2007 upgrade next year.

Costly Decisions

Not surprisingly, cost is a factor in the office app decision. But it may surprise some that IT managers are worried about how much it would cost to move to a "free" solution.

"I havent heard of anything yet that would overcome the excessive cost to switch," said Sam Inks, director of IT at Aerojet-General, in Gainesville, Va. "Its not just the cost of internal implementation, but theres also—and this may be more important—the impact of the switch in communicating with customers and vendors."

Another IT manager, who asked not to be named, said Microsofts pricing of the Office suite for large organizations makes even the low initial costs of alternatives less enticing.

Choices Expanding

New on the scene since Benincasa started his office suite evaluations is Googles corporate-leaning entry into the market, Google Apps Premier Edition. GAPE has steadily been gaining mindshare and support. Indeed, on Sept. 10, Capgemini announced that it was partnering with Google to offer support for GAPE to large organizations. (Microsoft responded with 10 reasons why GAPE is not ready for the enterprise.)


Click here for Microsofts Top 10 reasons not to GAPE.

But GAPE also suffers from compatibility issues with Office, and, for some companies, the Web-based Google suite is too risky. "Security is a concern," said Keith Carter, executive director of global operations at Estee Lauder, in Melville, NY. "If Google had an appliance to put in a private network, it might at least cover the security concerns."

IT managers interviewed by eWEEK also expressed concern about downtime issues with Web-based office productivity applications.

But thats not to say that Benincasa and others have given up on "getting out": "We will watch the open document standards initiative and decide later if we should look at alternatives again," said Benincasa.

Karl Herleman said pockets of people at Miami Dade College are using non-Office suites. "We are a MS Office shop, but there are sprinklings of people starting to use the non-Office suites," said Herleman, CIO of the college. "We are actively looking at Google and taking other non-MS Office suites seriously, but have no formal plans or schedule to move."

Organizations looking at alternatives are typically seeking not only file format compatibility but also feature parity. But, wonders Aero-Jets Inks, if the alternative suites come up to snuff on both of these counts, and cost is less of a factor when you figure in enterprise licensing, whats the advantage?


Office suites cant be too fat. Find out why.

"Its almost a Catch 22 for those trying to build a better mousetrap," said Inks. "If the new product does everything that Office does, why switch? If it doesnt, why switch?"


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