Office Suite Strategies


In mid-March, I received a quote from a local family-run roofing firm via email. The quote used the new Office 2007 format. I had no trouble reading it, but the roofer noticed he wasn’t getting responses from other potential clients. On another front, earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Army, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology cited compatibility issues as well as “no compelling technical or business case” for upgrading to Vista or Office 2007. California, Massachusetts, and Texas are considering a move to the OpenDocument Format (ODF), the ISO-standard for OpenOffice, a competing machine-based suite. Internationally, the talk about moving to ODF is widespread. Meanwhile, Google and others are offering web-based alternatives. Corel WordPerfect is offering both an online office suite and promises to work interchangeably with Microsoft and ODF office suites. What’s going on here? Massive confusion and change, and this is just the beginning.

There are many reasons for this turmoil: cost (hardware, software upgrade costs, training, and others); more choices; a slow movement from local machine-based to online computing; and a growing feeling that open standards with collaboratively developed systems might be more reliable, more relevant, and less expensive than vendor-specific offerings.

On the one hand, many have strongly committed to integrated suites from Microsoft. This camp sometimes considers word processors, spreadsheets, or presentation systems as basic end-user tools. IT installs the next version, users learn it, and IT moves on to bigger issues. Often, they made an initial commitment to Microsoft Windows, then to Office and the Outlook email system, and finally to Microsoft’s vast infrastructure offerings.

Strategically, sticking with Microsoft offers not only the assurance of “the devil you know,” but also an unparalleled opportunity to integrate office tools with emerging facilities like collaboration and enterprise-wide applications. Yet this choice comes with increasingly higher costs and security problems. Because it is such a large target, hackers continue to exploit Microsoft’s chronically soft security underbelly.

Others strongly believe that “documents are data too.” This group often values open standards, reduced licensing costs, preserving the option to use different operating systems, and best-of-breed choices, rather than vendor-based inte-gration. Those on this path want peer-reviewed and openly developed standards.

Microsoft has diminished some of this appeal with XML Open, its documented standard for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Still, that is a catch-up game and unlike OpenOffice, Office 2007 was not peer-reviewed. Although Microsoft’s Open XML has achieved vendor-based ECMA approval, it has yet to become an ISO standard. Moreover, Open XML has 6,000 pages of specifications, compared to about a tenth that for OpenOffice, which has been evolving over 20 years.

Then there is the issue of the depth of XML definitions in each. OpenOffice supports several other XML standards, such as SVG for graphics and XForms for forms. Open XML is essentially geared towards the look and feel of documents (think HTML), while OpenOffice provides opportunities to work with both appearances and deeper meaning.

Beyond tactics, there are broad strategic issues: Do you want to continue using desktop tools (like both Microsoft Word and OpenOffice Writer), or do you want the web-based paradigm of always available (with a broadband connection) but less functional, non-XML suites from vendors like Google? There is also a fence-straddling option: WordPerfect Office plans to support Open Office, Office 2007, and its own WordPerfect formats later this year. Corel’s Lightning product offers free word-processing and note-taking software that fills a gap between today’s existing desktop and web-based productivity tools.

So is Microsoft Office still a safe choice? Of course, but clearly others are keeping their options open. Adrian Sannier, information technology officer for Arizona State University, has made the switch to the “Google Applications for Education” suite. With that change, Sannier says that ASU, with its 65,000 students, is saving $400,000 annually and offers capabilities the students never had before. Moreover, Sannier repeats a claim common in IT organizations: We can’t keep up provisioning client-based services.

Whichever group you’re in, what do you make of the new office product offerings, many of which are in the “big three” listed above? Whatever you do, don’t do like my roofer and just upgrade to the latest and greatest. You might experience unintended consequences.