A look at Office Productivity Application options for SMBs

Most SMBs use Microsoft Office, but there are less expensive alternatives out there, and they're getting better all the time. With the price of the latest version of Office reaching over $600, it may be time to consider your options.

Enterprise envy is a common emotion for those who run small and medium businesses. That's especially true when it comes to the IT department: large companies have budgets that will support the high-end servers and network infrastructure that those in smaller organizations can only dream about.

But there might be one way in which SMBs actually have more options than their larger counterparts. Making major software changes in the enterprise environment can be daunting. Companies with hundreds or thousands of users have a big investment--both in money and time--in the applications they’re currently using. Taking a chance on a new option, even if it has more attractive features or costs significantly less, may be a hard sell. And the idea has to go through multiple levels of management to get approval.

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Small and mid-sized businesses, much like David in comparison with Goliath, have more flexibility. You’re less locked in to a particular vendor or product because making the change is not nearly so big a task. Now, with tight budgets facing many SMBs, some of them are taking a look at their options when it comes to frequently-used software applications such as office productivity suites.

Bucking the status quo

Almost every business, whatever its size, needs office applications to get the paperwork done. That includes, minimally, a word processing app for creating letters, contracts, and other printed documents, a spreadsheet for keeping track of expenses and other accounting tasks, and an e-mail client for sending and receiving mail. Office workers also need a way to track appointments, keep up with contact information on other people, and meet deadlines on tasks they need to perform. In addition, some need to create slideshow presentations and work with large databases of information.

For more than a decade, most organizations have relied on Microsoft’s Office applications--Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and Outlook--to handle those tasks. Available for both Windows and Macintosh operating systems, it dominates the office productivity market with over 90% of market share. But there are alternatives, and more are emerging all the time. With Office 2007 carrying a list price from $239 (Standard edition upgrade) to $679 (Ultimate edition, full), some budget-strapped SMBs may decide it’s time to look at what else is out there. You can find Microsoft’s pricing for the various editions of Office 2007 here: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/products/FX101754511033.aspx.

Advantages of sticking with Office

First, though, consider the reasons so many companies stick with Microsoft Office despite the cost. With more than 90% of other companies using some version of Office, Office file formats provide a standardized way of exchanging information. That’s obviously important; if you send a document to a partner or customer, you want them to be able to open and read it. On the other hand, because of Office’s popularity, most of its competing products are able to open and save to the familiar .doc, .xls and .ppt formats. Office 2007, which was released to consumers at the end of January, introduces new XML-based file formats. Competitors will almost certainly be adding support for the new formats quickly. Novell announced in December that they’ll offer additions for their OpenOffice suite to allow it to support the .docx format (http://www.betanews.com/article/Novell_OpenOffice_to_Support_Microsoft_Office_Open_XML/1165243666)

If file compatibility isn’t a problem, then why stick with Microsoft Office? Another issue is operating system compatibility. Although alternative vendors make their products to run on Windows, some would argue that Microsoft has a big advantage in making their products compatible (and the more cynical have even accused Microsoft of intentionally causing compatibility problems with competitors’ products). However, the latest versions of most competing products are reasonably stable.

Support is another concern you might have about switching to a different product, especially an open source product. Most support for free software is through the user community, although there are consultants who offer commercial support (their fees may be high, however). For other commercial products, vendors provide support similar to Microsoft’s. However, the quality of that support does vary.

Advantages of making the switch

The biggest advantage of switching to a different office suite is that it may save you a significant amount of money. But be sure to factor in the cost of the learning curve, both for your users and for the in-house IT people who support them. Timing can also be important; it makes more sense to make the switch at the time you would have upgraded to a new version of Office, since you would be spending money for new software then anyway.

Another advantage is that some of the alternate software suites will run on multiple platforms (Linux, as well as Windows and Macintosh).

Some companies may also see a philosophical advantage to using a non-Microsoft office suite.

What are the alternatives?

If you do decide to take the plunge, there are a number of alternatives to choose from:

WordPerfect Office Family (Corel)

 Once upon a time (in the 1980s and early '90s), WordPerfect was the number one word processing application before Microsoft Word took over that spot in the 90s. Unfortunately, as sales floundered, ownership bounced from WordPerfect Corporation to Novell and then to Corel. The current incarnation is WordPerfect Office X3. In addition to the WordPerfect word processor, it includes Quattro Pro for spreadsheets, Presentations for slideshows, and WordPerfect Mail for email. Pricing ranges from $144.99 (Standard edition, upgrade) to $349 (Professional edition, full). There is also a home edition for $99. Volume licensing is available, as well. You can find out more about it at http://www.corel.com/servlet/Satellite/us/en/Product/1152105038583.

OpenOffice (Novell)

The most popular open source office suite to emerge over the last few years is OpenOffice, which is owned by Novell. It includes Writer (word processor), Impress (slideshow), Math (an equation editor), Draw (a graphics package), Calc (spreadsheet) and Base (database front-end). It can be downloaded free under the GNU LGPL license, is available in over 65 languages, and runs on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Solaris and other platforms. You can find out more and download the product at http://www.openoffice.org/.

iWork (Apple)

If your company uses Macintosh OS X computers, an alternative to Microsoft Office for Mac is Apple’s iWork, which includes Pages (word processor) and Keynote (slideshow) applications, along with the iTunes music software and iLife for photos, movies, and other multimedia applications. It costs $79 but lacks spreadsheet and database applications and is really targeted more toward home users. You can import documents and presentations created with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. You can find out more about it at http://store.apple.com/1-800-MY-APPLE/WebObjects/AppleStore?productLearnMore=MA222Z/A.

And just this month (February 2007), Google launched its Google Apps Premier Edition, a hosted online office applications service set to compete with Office. Cost is $50 per user per year, and it includes Docs & Spreadsheets and Page Creator for designing and publishing Web pages, along with Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Talk accounts using a custom domain. For more info, see http://www.google.com/a/.

Summary

SMBs often operate on tight budgets and need to cut corners wherever they can. One way to trim expenses may be to switch from Microsoft Office to a less expensive office productivity suite or even an online service model.