How Much Office Functionality Do We Really Need, Anyway?

Microsoft says open-source office suites have just caught up to Office 97-but what has Redmond really accomplished in the past six years, asks Linux & Open Source Center Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Back to the future, Redmond-style: While singing the praises of Microsoft Office 2003, Jeff Raikes used his keynote presentation at this weeks Microsoft Partner Conference in New Orleans to accuse the suites open-source competitors of living in the past.

Raikes (Microsofts group vice president of productivity and business solutions) said that OpenOffice and Sun Microsystems open source-based StarOffice "simply accept the view that what they have is good enough. That view does not foster innovation. Being where we were with Office 1997 is not good enough for us."

Its not?

Seriously, what exactly is so much better now in our office software suites than it was in 1997? I cant think of anything that important, can you?

In the words of eWEEK Senior Analyst Jason Brooks, "Microsoft nailed pretty well the productivity suite basics when Office 97 shipped."

So whats changed for the better in the intervening six years? Well, the biggest difference is that office suites now support Web publishing. But thats not innovation; its simply a response to a world where being able to output to a Web browser is as important as being able to print to paper.

But, lets get real. Almost all the professional Web designers I know use Macromedia Inc. Dreamweaver programs, not FrontPage, StarOffice Web Publishing, or any other office suite Web publishing tools. For those who I think Im only in favor of Linux and open source, please note that Dreamweaver is proprietary and only runs on Windows and the Mac OS. (Darn it!)

If you want to get fancier still with Web authoring, you really leave office suites behind and arrive in the very different world of Microsoft Active Server Pages (ASP); Macromedia ColdFusion; and open-source programs like PHP-Nuke.

So what is new in Office 2003? OK, theres support for XML. Now, what am I going to do with XML support in an office suite?

I know more than I ever wanted to know about Web services, and simple XML publishing will make no difference to 99 percent of office workers. XML is an IT department thing, not an office-worker thing.

Of course, there is Infopath to make it easy for them to use XML for corporate work, but Im not sure that Infopath-based data-entry programs will be much of an improvement over current Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programs that serve much the same purpose. And you need to factor in the time needed to develop new Infopath applications in place of your VBA programs.

Microsoft OneNote? Yet another note organizer that no one will ever use. Maybe someday people will realize that while note organizers sounds like an attractive Office product, very few people use them. Even when they do, what they really want is something like FrontRanges GoldMine, a combination contact tracker and customer relationship management program.

The real goodies in Office 2003 are when you set it up with SharePoint Services (free in every box of Windows Server 2003!) or the full-fledged Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) 2003. But to really make that work you need to add a lot—and I mean a lot—of back-end software to your infrastructure, such as Exchange Server 2003, SQL Server 2000 and Live Communications Server 2003.

Of course, the same is true if you wanted to duplicate this kind of functionality in Linux; youd need to use PHP/Nuke or Red Hat Portal Server and Red Hat Content Management Server. Of course, the Linux approach is open source and the upfront costs are much less.

But lets get real. SPS or PHP/Nuke? Neither lets you drop the software in and forget about it. Either will require a lot of server IT work to make it run smoothly.

Maybe its just me, but isnt that an awful lot of software to upgrade your word processor and spreadsheet?

Microsoft insists that all that effort will be worthwhile because it will vastly increase office productivity. I dont believe it.

But it probably isnt for the reasons youd think Id cite as a Linux/open-source columnist. If its deployed properly to the right workers, a complete Microsoft Office System will work great. But the deployment costs are high, and—more important—people arent all that likely to use it anyway.

After all, this isnt a new idea. Underneath all the Office 2003 glitter, I see groupware with the sort of Lotus Notes/Domino, Novell GroupWise functionality thats been around for more than a decade. Now, I like collaborative workflow and groupware programs a lot, but I know they require people to get with the program. (And I dont mean software working together over the network)

And you know what? More often than not, people dont. Unless they see an immediate payoff, they tend to stick with the ways of working they know best. And Office 2003 offers no quick payoffs, unless the vast majority of a workgroup makes the move at one time.

Over the decade Ive been watching programs that deploy this kind of functionality, nine out of 10 workgroups Ive observed havent made such a jump. Instead, they end up under-using Notes as an e-mail system or using GroupWise products as standalone office suite components.

For most users in most situations, is there anything outstanding about Office 2003? OK, Outlook is better; but come on, its still a security hole, even with some anti-spam functionality. But in the few weeks Ive been playing with both, open-source Mozilla anti-spam has acquitted itself better.

Bottom line: Does your office suite do what you want it do for you today? If it does, I see no good reason to switch to Office 2003. Indeed, I dont see any "jump up and shout" reason for satisfied office-suite users any new alternative.

If you do need or want to switch, StarOffice 7 really is a nice little office suite that costs a lot less than Office 2003. It also has one advantage that no Microsoft office suite will boast anytime soon: It runs on Linux, Solaris and Windows. If your office is moving to multiple desktop operating systems, StarOffice (or its free little brother, OpenOffice) is clearly your best choice. Linux & Open Source Center Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about Unix and Linux since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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