Charting a course away from Microsoft Corp.s Office is no simple—or short—task, as eWEEK Labs has learned from a company carefully evaluating its office productivity suite options.
A year and a half after eWEEK Labs conducted the Office 2003 vs. OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 eValuation at FN Manufacturing LLC—and less than six months after working with the company to evaluate Version 2.0 of OpenOffice.org—we returned to Columbia, S.C., at the invitation of FN Manufacturing Vice President of MIS Ed Benincasa. The purpose: to evaluate ThinkFree Corp.s ThinkFree Office 3 Server Edition in a corporate environment and to determine whether the server-based productivity suite would be a viable alternative to Microsoft Office at the precision machining manufacturer.
Designed as a cheaper alternative to Microsoft Office, ThinkFree Office 3 natively reads and writes in Microsoft Office formats and includes most of Offices features. ThinkFree Office 3 comprises three applications: ThinkFree Write for word processing, ThinkFree Show for presentations and ThinkFree Calc for spreadsheets.
The results of our eVal tests were mixed. Testers found a lot to like in ThinkFree Office 3, but they also found the suite lacking in many areas.
Version 3 of the suite was close to being released at the time of our tests but not close enough for a gold version to be used. We therefore tested with a private beta release. The deficiencies cited by FN Manufacturing and eWEEK Labs testers will be addressed in the gold Version 3 and future releases of ThinkFree Office, according to company officials.
“In the lab, users did identify features that would need to be incorporated into the product for it to meet normal business day-to-day needs,” Benincasa said. “ThinkFree is working on these issues, and their product should be able to support many business environments if these features are incorporated. But a key advantage to their product is that it is server-based, eliminating the need to install the software or maintain updates on individual machines.”
Since we last visited FN Manufacturing, Benincasa and his team have continued their quest to deploy a Microsoft Office alternative to users within the organization.
Benincasa, whos also an eWEEK Corporate Partner, isnt an anti-Microsoft poster child, nor is he necessarily looking to replace Microsoft Office entirely. He knows there is a good chance advanced users will continue to require access to Microsoft Office, but Benincasa is hoping to provide a less expensive solution for those users who need limited or basic word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation capabilities.
Microsoft Office 97 and Office 2000 are currently being used by the 300-plus users at the company. When Microsoft discontinued distribution of new licenses for Office 97 and Office 2000, FN Manufacturing started planning a companywide desktop and productivity suite migration—to whatever the suite, or suites, may be—for office workers.
Benincasa is looking for a more cost-effective Office substitute, mitigating some of the costs associated with Microsoft licenses. His goal is to migrate at least 75 percent of his users to non-Office productivity software.
“While Microsoft Office is a good product, we could take the money we save from Office licenses and invest those IT dollars in something else that we really need,” Benincasa said. “If only 25 percent of our users need the functionality of Microsoft Office, it makes sense for us to look elsewhere for users who dont.”
eWEEK Labs traveled to FN Manufacturing to conduct the eVal, which Benincasa arranged with ThinkFree. Acting as eVal judges were Benincasa; Olivier Vanderstraeten, a network security administrator at FN Manufacturing; Graham Phillips, a network systems administrator at FN Manufacturing; and eWEEK Labs.
The 17 testers who participated in the eVal included a cross section of users from FN Manufacturing and IT managers from its related companies: Browning International S.A., in Herstal, Belgium, and parent company Fabrique Nationale (National Weapons Factory), also in Herstal.
Edward Coloma, managing director at ThinkFree, and Sunghee Lee, a senior product manager at ThinkFree, were also on-site for the duration of the tests.
During the Office 2003 vs. OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 eVal, issues surrounding compatibility and file formatting were revealed when users tried to work with Microsoft Office-formatted files using OpenOffice.org 1.1.1. Some testers also complained that the open-source office suite would require significant retraining because the two interfaces were so different.
As much as FN Manufacturing would like to save money by having to purchase fewer licenses for Microsoft Office, Benincasa knows there is no point if the files his users rely on to do business are incompatible with the software used by their business partners and customers. Benincasa hoped that the server-based ThinkFree office suite would resolve some of those issues and that it would be a more natural fit for his organization than OpenOffice.
Prior to the eVal tests, ThinkFree engineers remotely installed the ThinkFree Office 3 Server Edition Private Beta Release software onto a server running Novell Inc.s SUSE Linux 9.3 at FN Manufacturings South Carolina site.
ThinkFree relies on the Java Runtime Environment and works with any browser and operating system that support the engine. Testers accessed the ThinkFree productivity applications via Web browsers and were able to open their own files on FN Manufacturings corporate network. Testing therefore focused on ThinkFree applications capability and compatibility, as well as on user training requirements.
What drew Benincasa to ThinkFree in the first place is that it is a server-based solution that can be deployed on a variety of major operating systems including Linux, Windows and Sun Microsystems Inc.s Solaris. FN Manufacturing is a heavy user of Linux in the data center and has plans to migrate desktops from Windows to Linux terminal services. By having users access the server-based software using their Web browsers, Benincasa can run one solution regardless of the platform being used.
A server-based solution also will reduce IT management costs, a priority at FN Manufacturing: “What drew me to this product is that its a server-based application,” Vanderstraeten said. “We spend so much time here managing PCs that anything that makes it easier for us to manage the user base is a good thing.”
Added Benincasa: “All things being equal, we will calculate whether its less costly for us to deploy a server version or to go through an individual client deployment of OpenOffice.org. Our hope is for everyone in the company to be on the same application, but that may not be possible.”
FN Manufacturing will have to factor in licensing costs with ThinkFree. OpenOffice. org 2.0 would be free for the organization to deploy. ThinkFree Office 3 Server Edition, on the other hand, costs $5,000 with five end-user licenses and $50 for each additional end-user license. Volume licensing is available. (Thats still much cheaper than Microsoft Office, however, which costs more than $300 per seat retail. Volume licensing for Office is, of course, also available.)
Asking users to keep in mind that ThinkFree Office 3 was still in beta and would likely have some bugs, we instructed testers to open and create documents using the suites word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications.
The users seemed, for the most part, receptive to a move to ThinkFree. Some of the more advanced users even applauded the intuitive nature of ThinkFree and its capabilities. Users of all levels remarked on the suites ease of use and familiarity.
“I believe ThinkFree has a good foundation to grow their product on,” said Benincasa. “It is cross-platform, server-based, and the learning curve is minimal. Users were not exposed to the product beforehand, but they did not seem to have problems navigating and using the product.”
Many of the same issues encountered during tests of OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 were also present during this test, however.
ThinkFree, for example, was unable to handle any Microsoft macros. The suite also ran into some issues with formatting and, in some cases, could not open documents created using Microsoft Office.
ThinkFree officials said that they will try to resolve as many formatting and compatibility issues as possible by the time the software is released this spring. The company has no plans, however, to support macros of any kind.
Most users said they found ThinkFree Write to be familiar and intuitive. While the tool bars are fixed and no spell-check button was to be found (although the product does have spell-check capabilities), testers said that complicated documents, such as those with tables, loaded without problems and with no noticeable formatting issues.
One thing that testers did notice, however, was that ThinkFree was unable to open documents created using Office 95. Benincasa said his users shouldnt be using documents that old, but the fact remains that they exist—an issue FN Manufacturing will need to resolve before moving off Microsoft Office.
Eval testers said they relied on PowerPoint less than Word or Excel when using the Microsoft Office suite, but many of them do produce complex presentations with embedded Word and Excel objects.
As we saw in tests with OpenOffice.org 1.1.1, ThinkFree Show ran into issues with slides that made heavy use of embedded objects. Large files with graphics, for example, would not open in some instances. Also, a spreadsheet selection copied from Excel 2000 pasted over as plain text in ThinkFree Show.
However, users said building simple presentations from scratch was easy using the friendly, familiar Show interface.
When using the spreadsheet application, users ran into the same copy and paste issues they saw with ThinkFree Show. However, testers applauded the applications ability to convert Excel charts.
Joan Curfman, a business systems supervisor at FN Manufacturing who participated in the last eVal, said she didnt experience the same data-loss issues with OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 when launching Excel charts in ThinkFree Calc.
Some users ran into issues opening Excel files that were 8MB or larger. Michael Lyday, a project engineer at FN Manufacturing, relies on large Excel files that are often 50MB or larger to chart data points. Conversion issues made Lydays files impossible to open using both ThinkFree Calc and OpenOffice.org 2.0.
“It would be nice if the world would get on one format so that we wouldnt run into issues like formatting and compatibility,” Benincasa said. “This is really where an open standard would come in handy.”
In Search of Office Excellence
- 2003 FN Manufacturing conducts tests with users to determine the viability of making the switch to OpenOffice.org; the company deploys OpenOffice.org 1.0 to shop-floor computers
- January 2004 FN Manufacturing begins considering the OpenOffice.org suite as a possible replacement for Microsoft Office for all users
- March 2004 The company conducts a two-day on-site test with eWEEK Labs to determine the potential issues associated with deployments of OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 and Microsoft Office 2003; 18 employees participate
- November 2004 Ed Benincasa, FN Manufacturings vice president of MIS, prepares a return on investment study that shows the company will save $80,000 by moving desktops from Microsoft Windows and Office to SUSE Linux and OpenOffice.org
- December 2004 Benincasa upgrades shop-floor systems to OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 and deploys the updated suite to warehouse operations
- January 2005 FN Manufacturing starts testing OpenOffice.org 2.0 betas
- October 2005 Existing OpenOffice.org desktops are upgraded to Version 2.0
- November 2005 Benincasa begins deploying Linux Terminal Services to some areas of the organization, with plans to deploy OpenOffice.org more widely to employees who dont need the advanced features of Microsoft Office
- December 2005 The company conducts a one-day on-site test of ThinkFree Office 3 Server Edition with eWEEK Labs; 17 employees participate
- 2006 Benincasa and his IT staff will begin deploying Linux Terminal Services to office workers who are not power users
- 2007 FN Manufacturing expects to conduct a major client upgrade, with 25 percent of users moving to the next version of Microsoft Office and 75 percent moving to an Office alternative
Source: eWEEK Labs reporting
Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at [email protected] com.
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