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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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