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 Free Office Productivity Software Should Microsoft be Worried?

Published 7/13/2008 9:37:00 PM - General

It’s always tempting to seek signs that a vendor with total domination over a particular market may finally face a challenge. Everyone (except the dominant vendor, of course) benefits from competition and choice.

It’s pretty tough to find a more dominant product than MSFT Office. Wishful thinking aside, though, it appears that MSFT is facing the biggest challenge to Office dominance in a very, very long time.

Free office productivity software solutions are steadily gaining awareness and interest. MSFT Office still has overwhelming marketshare and this won’t change dramatically in the near future. However, with powerful backing from IBM (Symphony), Sun (StarOffice), Google (Docs) and other offerings (primarily based on the open source OpenOffice project), the alternatives are viable and increasingly credible options.

It’s a simple fact that most users do not use the majority of features in their office suite beyond the basic functionality. Free alternatives to MSFT Office are compelling in part because they typically focus on the basic functions that most users require, making them less feature-rich and therefore less complicated to use.

Before we get too excited, it’s worth remembering that nothing is free. There is of course a cost associated with switching over to an unfamiliar application (even a free one), particularly in the areas of technical support and training as users get comfortable with an unfamiliar user interface.

Another primary issue to consider is potential compatibility issues between free offerings and MSFT Office. OpenDocument Format (ODF) has steadily gained traction over the past 2-3 years. Malaysia is one of many countries evaluating its usage and adoption as a standard for public sector ICT initiatives. But MSFT continues to push its own alternative called Open XML. Technical translators are available and can help resolve some compatibility issues but they are far from perfect. Text typically translates easily between products, for instance, while fonts and formatting may not.

MSFT will continue to dominate the office productivity market but we expect free alternatives to eat away at this dominance over the next 2-3 years. At the very least, this market is getting far more interesting.

Interest in MSFT Office alternatives will benefit from a broader interest in SaaS (software as a service). As SaaS solutions gain traction and credibility, we expect organizations, particularly small and mid-size businesses (SMB), to look more seriously at SaaS-based MSFT Office alternatives, with Google Docs being the most likely candidate in this scenario.

With strong backing from major IT vendors like IBM, Google, Sun, and Adobe, the market for free office productivity software will grow across Asia Pacific. Organizations with limited resources should monitor the positive experiences of early adopters and the ongoing momentum of ODF as a standard among APAC governments to further spur growth in this market.

By Michael Barnes

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 Microsoft Unlimited Potential A Route to Emerging Nations

Published 7/7/2008 3:36:00 AM - General

In April 2007, Microsoft revamped its Unlimited Potential emerging market strategy by announcing a bold, new initiative to reach the next one billion people with computers and low-cost software by 2015.

Microsoft's program to reach developing countries is known as "Unlimited Potential", and through this program the company aims to bring computers to the next 5 billion people by focusing on all aspects of economic and social characteristics of countries such as India, China and others. Since the inception of Unlimited Potential, Microsoft has expanded investments in emerging countries to foster social and economic growth which highlights its increasing focus on developing markets.

Aimed at developing nations, low-cost computers having Flash memory, shared computing, mobile technologies, internet-based services and customized software are the main features of Microsoft's long-term efforts.

Microsoft is offering local governments a software suite, including Office Home and Student 2007 and Windows XP Starter Edition, for US$3 per student. The company is actively partnering with NGOs, technology companies, and engaging other channels to give push to government subsidized PC-for-students programs.

Also, iCafé is the major initiative under the Unlimited Potential program. In countries such as China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, where PC and household Internet penetration is very low, iCafés are the most important source of Internet access for a significant section of the population.

Although Microsoft's emerging market initiative shows inherent potential to be an effective social and business strategy, the close coordination with local governments, NGOs and partners to execute the programs remains a challenge in emerging markets. The slow pace of working and laid back attitude of government agencies is something which needs to be dealt carefully. Also, the rural areas in emerging countries lack with basic amenities such as electricity, water, etc. which could act as a permanent impediment to development.

On a technical side, the biggest challenge for Microsoft is to port Windows XP on a Flash-based system. This is something that Microsoft has not done in a great way and progress in this area has been very slow. Also, Vista is deemed too complex to port on a Flash-based system, due to the large number of device drivers that it supports. It will be quite interesting to watch how Microsoft handles the technical issues in the times to come.

Undoubtedly, there is a potential business opportunity in the middle and bottom of the social and economic pyramid. However, this opportunity requires new partnerships, distribution models, and customized products that are applicable, accessible, affordable, and sustainable for people in emerging countries.

While emerging nations have aggressive plans for technology adoption as a means to economic growth, they also have very limited budgets to purchase even subsidized software. As a result, some governments have encouraged the adoption of Linux which could affect the long-term unlimited potential group goals.

I am quite encouraged about the prospects of rural emerging nations in the long term and the leading indicators suggest that the average annual growth rates are accelerating in low-income economies.

Microsoft’s strategy to align its business interests with social cause to achieve win-win situation on both the fronts is highly appreciable and will have an unlimited bonus for the company down the road.  The company appears to be moving in the right direction by making regular investments, and putting resources towards this direction.

By Manish Bahl

Image courtesy peiqianlong

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 Adobe checks into Office

Published 6/26/2008 5:57:00 AM - General

In late 2007, Adobe acquired Virtual Ubiquity and marked its entry in the online office application market.  Virtual Ubiquity had a free online word processor called Buzzword based on Adobe flash- meaning it was platform-independent and could run on any OS (Windows, Linux or Mac).

Adobe Buzzword screenshot

By then, Google had already helped establish the concept of online office applications with the launch of Google Docs. There are numerous online office applications available in the market today, such as Zoho, Zimbra (acquired by Yahoo), Microsoft Office Live and Thinkfree.

However, one of the features that set Buzzword apart from others is its sleek interface – it can manage and display the document through a graphical medium which gives users a rich document experience. Additionally, one important concept that Buzzword works on is the collaboration (same as Google Docs) where instead of sending documents out to others through email, people are invited online to contribute content or just to add comments.

Working on Software as a Service (Saas) model, Adobe is trying to dive deeper into online collaboration area by integrating its existing portfolio with Buzzword. Towards this objective, the company has started offering Adobe Connect, a desktop sharing application. Also, Adobe plans to nurture Buzzword and I presume we would soon see spreadsheet and presentation applications in the future. However, its main focus is to first achieve total integration between Buzzword and its existing product portfolio.

Adobe’s attempt to build services around its strong core offerings, with a view to provide a greater value over traditional desktop offerings, is a smart move. The Buzzword integration is a step forward towards collaborative on-line work model and we should not be surprised to see an offline version of the word application based on Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) technology in the future as well.

Nevertheless, there are few challenges for Adobe to face in the area of online collaboration work: The biggest one is to change the mind set of large user base – From corporate to individuals, it will be quite difficult to switch people from typical desktop environment to online collaboration work concept. People like to talk about emerging technologies a lot but hardly use them in daily life. The second one is the flash-dependent platform of Buzzword which works slower than an HTML version. However, a lot of innovation can be expected on this front.

The online collaborative work model is interesting and will gain momentum in the future but the implementation in real-life space could be much slower. Nevertheless, Adobe’s move in this space will definitely push other companies to develop better and quicker products in the near future.

Go ahead and take a test drive with Buzzword at https://buzzword.acrobat.com/ (You need to download the latest version of Adobe Flash to use the application)

By Manish Bahl

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 Rural markets in emerging nations- A hidden treasure

Published 6/19/2008 11:34:00 PM - General

Today, emerging markets represent the fastest growing economies in the world. Growing industry consolidation and slowing growth abroad has drawn focus from multinational companies on emerging countries such as India and China that offer significant untapped growth opportunities. The institutions that operate within emerging markets—governments, education, health and private enterprise—are beginning to recognize that without rural sector development they would not be able to grow significantly or improve the standard of living of their people.

Rural India accounts for more than 50% of the GDP and the rural consumption expenditure registers around 60% of the total consumption expenditure in the country. On the other side, the Chinese economy is experiencing unprecedented growth, largely in urban areas, but the need is growing for rural populations to have the same advantages and access to technology as those people living in cities.

In order to tap the rural phenomenon more efficiently, initiatives such as Unlimited Potential by Microsoft, One Laptop Per Child concept by MIT Media Labs, World Ahead program from Intel and 50x15 program from AMD are already been in place. The aim of these companies is at providing the low-cost computing/ PCs to emerging nations to create a win-win situation for all. Recently, One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program unveiled the second version of its XO laptop, while Intel announced its next-generation Classmate PC for developing countries.

However, low-cost PCs may not be the relevant technology to reach rural people in emerging nations. A sustainable rural mobile development program can create all-round growth in under-developed areas of emerging countries as cellular technology is far more reachable than PC penetration.

The rural areas in China and India are experiencing explosive growth in mobile communications, as falling tariffs and rising incomes are bringing mobile phones within the reach of millions of new customers. The Ministry of Information Industry, China announced that the number of mobile phone users had reached 501.64 million by the end of June 2007 and the higher growth came from the rural areas. On the other side, India has emerged as the fastest growing telecom market in the world. The number of rural mobile phone users is around 40 million, accounting more than 22% of the total mobile subscriber base in India. This figure is expected to go up to 35-40% by 2010 in the country.

Although I am of the opinion that rural markets in emerging nations will trigger new types of competition in the years to come, there will be a number of issues to face due to a lack of infrastructure, poor coordination among government bodies, funding and technical support in countries such as India and China.

The active efforts from companies are just getting started, and we believe it will be early to comment that a particular technology will have a solid impact on rural areas growth. As seen in any emerging country, the cost will play a key attribute based on demand, feasibility, and user needs. It will be interesting to see how the business model of various companies evolves to target the big and untapped opportunity in the rural segment.  

By Manish Bahl

Image courtesy mckaysavage

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