Can you really live without Microsoft Office?

Open source and cloud computing alternatives can replace Office in some circumstances

Open source and cloud computing alternatives can replace Office in some circumstances

If there's one application that everybody has, and depends on, it's Microsoft Office. The newest Office, though, has met with a mixed reaction, thanks to a changed user interface that caused concern in some quarters and increased connections with Microsoft's collaboration technology that has intrigued many in IT -- but is optimized for Vista environments that have been slow to gain adoption.

At the same time, more people are adopting Apple's Macintosh, where the newest Office incarnation has been roundly criticized for being just a partial implementation of the real thing. And the desktop Linux community is hoping that the emerging class of ultra-low-cost PCs and laptops may jump-start adoption -- and a need for Linux-based office productivity software. Thus, the time is right to see if you can live without Microsoft Office.

In the early days of the PC, Microsoft Office faced several vibrant competitors, but today, only a puny WordPerfect survives as a commercial product, and barely that. Mac users have the option of Apple's iWork suite, which works well for basic tasks but is oriented more toward visual document preparation than large-enterprise workflow.

But a new generation of competitors -- Google Docs, IBM Lotus Symphony, OpenOffice.org, and Zoho -- is emerging from two different directions: cloud computing services and open source software. While businesses have embraced SaaS (software as a service) for enterprise applications from CRM to security, and open source software for server operating systems and infrastructure component firmware, they have been far more reluctant to move desktop productivity software to either open source or the cloud. Still, the feature sets and user interfaces of the competition have developed to a point at which they can be considered serious options for personal productivity tasks.

So it's plausible to switch to an Office alternative. But how do you go about actually making the switch? There are several factors to work through, since technology is far from the only issue that has to be considered when thinking about a shift from a market leader to less-popular competitor. And each can have a cost.

The cost of training

Businesses considering alternatives to Office of course have to anticipate a steep cost of change. One of the great advantages of Microsoft Office is the number of people who know how to use its applications. In any switch to an alternative, you would likely need to do a good bit of training -- especially of heavy Excel users who tap into the significant and sometimes inherently complex functionality in that product. And don't forget the cost of rewriting all the Excel macros that create the monthly executive dashboard reporting at the company.

The new user interface introduced with Office 2007 is cited by some as creating an opportunity for exploring new applications, since the "ribbon" device used in Office 2007 is so radically different than that of earlier Office versions. An application suite like OpenOffice.org, which features a user interface similar to that used in Office 2003, could require less user training than the new version of Microsoft Office.

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