Office software: Changing suites

Sometimes it’s not worth switching software, even when it’s free.

An opportunity to get anything for free is often too tantalizing to resist. But, as the old saw goes, nothing is ever really free. Take software. Sure, online or downloadable office productivity suites such as Google Apps, OpenOffice, IBM’s Lotus Symphony and the lesser-known Zoho cost nothing to buy, which sounds compelling next to the $300 or so retail price of a single upgrade copy of Microsoft Office Standard 2007, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. (A full non-upgrade version of Office Ultimate 2007 lists for up to $900 per copy, unless you swing a long-term volume licensing deal.)

But there absolutely is a price to be paid for migrating to any new productivity suite, regardless of its initial cost. “The savings are never as great as people would like to believe,” says Fen Yik, an analyst with Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont., who frequently fields questions from clients about Office alternatives. “There is an increased maintenance cost, increased support costs associated with switching over to an unfamiliar interface, as well as possible customization work that will have to be done.”

Yik says companies must focus on compatibility and integration, both within their own companies, and with outside partners, when considering a change. The alternative suites come with some built-in conversion capabilities, but there are always imperfections. “In terms of functionality, an alternative would be fine for a small company with a very simple IT environment that has no interactions with other companies,” says Yik. “The problem is that productivity apps don’t run in a vacuum. The Office suite isn’t the kind of software you can just rip out and replace.”

One way around this problem is to save documents in Adobe Systems’ Portable Document Format (PDF), and e-mail them as read-only files. But PDF isn’t an option if employees need to collaborate on documents or spreadsheets. Fortunately, that’s where Google Apps and Zoho shine. As online offerings, all employees need is a web browser — instant messaging and other communication tools are built-in. But neither are as deep and complex as Office. Word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and e-mail programs are pretty standard tools for many, but employees often use only a small fraction of all the bells and whistles included in Microsoft Office. Still, people like familiarity. Lotus Symphony, OpenOffice and Sun Microsystems’ low-cost StarOffice (which is about US$70, but less for volume licensing) are the most similar to Microsoft’s suite.

At least you no longer need constant broadband connectivity, which had been a deal breaker for some companies, especially those with road warriors: both Zoho and Google Docs let you work on files inside your browser while offline (although in Zoho, many formatting features are turned off).

But there is still a security issue. Online suites such as Google Apps and Zoho require you to trust that your business documents are safe behind those companies’ firewalls. That might be a hard pill to swallow, especially if the information is sensitive. Google is a known entity, but Zoho? It’s an impressive and fast-expanding suite from AdventNet, a 12-year-old corporate software maker based in Pleasanton, Calif. Some organizations just feel safer with a big-name tech company. The same sentiment also applies to open-source desktop software packages, even StarOffice. Many managers like the perceived security of having paid money to an honest-to-goodness corporate entity, under the assumption they’ll get better support should something go wrong.

But the biggest problem most companies will face is untangling Microsoft Office from third-party applications — for example, accounting software that is hooked in with Excel, or collaboration platforms or content management tools that link with Word. “Everything is dedicated to integrate well with Microsoft Office,” says Yik, “and thatis not necessarily the case with other productivity suites.”

In the end, the pain associated with changing software keeps companies from needlessly upgrading to newer versions of Microsoft Office, let alone completely different suites. But upgrades do happen, and the alternatives only become more compelling as the price difference becomes more noticeable — just don’t expect a free ride.