Office options

The release of the latest version of Microsoft Office has grabbed the headlines lately but it's nothing new that few businesses can survive without reliable office software. Windows gets to the bottom of the office discussion and finds out what's best for the small business.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  December 1, 2003

Which way for Office?|~||~||~|The office productivity suite is one of the small business's most important purchases. As firms rely ever more heavily on the PC then it is this software package, which encompasses basic office tools such as typing, spreadsheet, calendar and contacts as well as sometimes more complex fare, that is the backbone of every successful company.

Unless you're fond of the manual typewriter and the abacus, you've got to plump for office software if your business is to flourish. That's why we have decided to highlight what you should be thinking about when you next buy office software for your small business.

We can't talk about productivity software without mentioning Microsoft's Office. This behemoth dominates the office landscape much like sand dominates the landscape in the Rub Al Khali. The latest version of Office - 2003 - was released amid much fanfare in the region at this year's Gitex in Dubai. You could be forgiven for thinking that Microsoft has no competitors when it comes to office software, but while its position is undoubtedly strong, other companies are starting to raise their voices in the region.

Ahmad El Dandachi, software sales manager, Sun Microsystems MENA says, "StarOffice is the challenger in this market, and we are very proud to have sold about 40 million licenses (globally) of Star Office in the past three years. That's a great achievement for us and we're now gaining momentum."

One of the most important issues for the small business is cost, general managers are always looking for ways to trim outlay - of course without reducing productivity. It is arguably here that the battle between Microsoft and its challengers will be won and lost.
There is great disparity between different office applications in terms of cost. At the top end of the scale you've got Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003 ($449) and Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.8 ($194).

In contrast Sun's StarOffice 7 weighs in at $80 and OpenOffice is available free. So, what's the best choice for the small business? This is a difficult question and one that deserves a great deal of deliberation.

||**||Uphill|~||~||~|The key battle for the more expensive packages is to prove that they are worth the extra outlay. John Mangelaars, general manager of the Information Worker Business Group, Microsoft EMEA, is all too aware of this challenge.

"First of all," he says, "You have to drive value. I would argue that the address books of many small businesses are all over the place. With Office 2003, we bundle Business Contact Manager, so there's value for small businesses right out of the box. It will organise details for your customers, so you can automatically keep track of birthdays, for example." Mark Latchford, vice president for IBM subsidiary Lotus Software EMEA, adds, "We do believe there is value in software. People aren't going to pay unless they see the value. We have to deliver a price and functionality that works."

Associated costs are also a problem for Microsoft. Upgrading to Office 2003 can have knock on effects. For example, you need to have Windows 2000 or XP as your operating system to run Office 2003. This means that small businesses with, say, Windows 98, have to upgrade their to take advantage of the new suite. This adds cost across the board, and is a step not all small businesses will find prudent.

The challenge for the less expensive packages is to prove that they can accomplish a level of competence demanded by the small business. Sun, manufacturer of StarOffice, has been aggressively promoting the strengths of its office offering. Sun's El Dandachi says, "A key element to our strategy is that we believe customers in the Middle East deserve a choice in office productivity.

Our regional customers want greater affordability and cost-effectiveness, which is why StarOffice was created. Sun has also invested in ensuring that end-users deploying StarOffice enjoy enhanced security features, and IT managers have a desktop environment that's easy to deal with."

It is an uphill struggle in some ways for Sun, because so few users are aware of the StarOffice package, let alone its user interface. The same point, but more emphatically, could be made about OpenOffice. With no manufacturer to promote it (the product was created free by programmers collaborating using open source) there is a huge grey area in the minds of users, with people wondering what exactly OpenOffice does and how well it does it.

The software does have its advocates however, such as information solutions provider Novell. Novell has invested in Linux based solutions such as the Ximian desktop and is encouraging businesses to move to OpenOffice because it fits well with its attempt to enlighten user's on the benefits of open-source products.

John Bell, managing director of Novell Middle East says, "Anybody that's seen it (OpenOffice) sees that the depth of the product is good and sometimes better than the Microsoft desktop."

Whatever end user perceptions of the various office applications, vendors universally welcome competition in the market. Mazen Shehadeh, Microsoft product marketing manager, says, "Its healthy competition. It gives customers an option. We believe we have excellent solutions to address customer needs and provide return on investment. As long as I see a smile from our customers, I'm happy." The increased competition should certainly encourage companies to build ever more effective features into their solutions, which is good news for small businesses.

||**||All its own way|~||~||~|Competition is not necessary to spur innovation though. Despite having captured 97% of the global office suite market Microsoft has not rested on its laurels. The latest version of Office, reviewed in the last issue of Windows, is teeming with advanced new features. This is part of Microsoft's strategy to take Office into higher end territory.

A key aspect of this is collaboration. Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect, says, "The nature of work is changing, with an ever-expanding range of jobs that depend on quickly and easily accessing, understanding and acting on information. The Office System has evolved advanced tools and technologies to meet the needs of today's information workers."

Shehadeh continues with a concrete example, "Microsoft's InfoPath (integrated into some editions of Office 2003) can provide a link to an updated database for a salesman on the move with a tablet PC. This means he can get an updated idea of stock and prices at the click of a button and can also update the database when he is with the customer, instead of waiting until he goes back to the office."

Another key innovation of Office 2003 is the integration of Extensible Markup Language (XML) into the applications. This is very helpful if you're manipulating information on the internet. It means that Word documents and so on are now 'speaking the same language' as web documents. Having data stored in XML format allows server-side tools to automatically assemble and generate reports and presentations. This is fantastic if your business is data mining, for example.

Another high-end innovation is the inclusion of information rights management (IRM). This means you can protect sensitive files and e-mail messages from unauthorised access and use. For example, you can set expiration dates on files. This is a good tool for making sure that only the 'right' eyes see internal documents. Mangelaars sums up the Office System's key strengths as "getting more out of people and getting more out of teams. It's not just a typewriter."

Microsoft Office has definitely evolved way beyond a mere typewriter, but what about those small business users who don't want much more than basic word processing, spreadsheet, database and contacts? Microsoft Office has arguably left these users behind by offering a host of stellar features they will never use. Simply put, it means that unless you use the full range of Microsoft features, including IRM and XML, there is little point shelling out $449 for the new version of Office.

Furthermore Microsoft has not had it all its own way when it comes to office collaboration. Commenting on this, Lotus's Mark Latchford says, "I'd say we are a little deeper than Microsoft's strategy. We have delivered collaborative functionality for five or six years. Our team room and e-meeting approach has been a fundamental part of what we call our collaborative journey."

||**||Help! It keeps crashing!|~||~||~|These strengths have long been appreciated by large enterprises (who make up the main Lotus clients), although the company is trying to gain a foothold among small businesses. The software is a technically very competent offering, for example it integrates well with Lotus Notes, which is the company's answer to Microsoft's e-mail application Outlook Express, though it has always been in the shadow of Microsoft Office.

Long established Lotus has less of a struggle making its case among the Middle East's business newer players such as Sun. Nevertheless Sun has one real ace up its sleeve, with regards to StarOffice and that is price. The package is no slouch on features either. Sun's El Dandachi says, "StarOffice 7 users can create PDF files immediately from any presentation or spreadsheet document without downloading any additional software." This is the kind of reasonably sophisticated and undoubtedly helpful tool that might help persuade small businesses that StarOffice deserves to be taken seriously.

Most small businesses at present operate using Microsoft Office software and the thought of moving away from Microsoft fills many GMs with dread. The chief concern is that existing Microsoft-based files will not be compatible with a new suite. StarOffice, though, can open documents that are created in Microsoft applications such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

The StarOffice suite is also more versatile than Microsoft's Office in that it can be run on the Solaris and Linux operating systems as well as Windows. Another disadvantage of Microsoft Office is that, as a huge and well-featured package, it has many security gaps that can be exploited by hackers and viruses. Smaller packages like StarOffice are less exposed to this risk.

Although StarOffice 7 is nowhere near as complex as Office 2003, Sun can emulate Microsoft to some extent by integrating the office suite with other products. Indeed El Dandachi believes the future of StarOffice lies in "integrating the office productivity suite more closely with Sun's desktop environment, the Sun Java Desktop System, which includes the Mozilla web browser. We also do a bundle including 25 users of Star Office with a server in a ready to use solution for small to medium sized businesses."

StarOffice has the clout of Sun behind it, but OpenOffice must stand or fall entirely on its own merits. The open source program was actually the basis for Sun StarOffice and the package feels like a slightly more basic version of StarOffice 7. Despite being free, it is a fully-fledged suite, offering word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and graphics programs. Once again the applications can open Microsoft files.

The program is easy to use and in broad terms similar to versions of Microsoft Office of a few years back. There are a few little differences however, that will niggle long-term Microsoft users who migrate from Office. Overall, the package is like a cut-down, basic, less polished version of Microsoft's Office.

||**||Branded|~||~||~|Support is the area where OpenOffice faces its most stark challenge. As no one has sold you this free application there is no one to complain to if things go wrong. Novell has held out some hope that it may be able to support OpenOffice users who are operating on one of their platforms. John Bell says, "We've already got the infrastructure to support our products and many of our products are open source and Linux, therefore it's already there for us to use. To extend that outside is very simple for us."

The other three significant solutions on the market are backed by the might of Microsoft, IBM and Sun, so there should be no problems getting adequate support from any in the event of disaster. All companies have a huge base of expertise to draw upon and at the very least, there will be an apparatus in place that allows you to lodge a complaint.

In addition to its strength in support facilities Microsoft derives a great deal of benefit from the ubiquity of its products. Having gained such a huge market share, and with users being so accustomed to the products, it will be very difficult for Microsoft's competitors to gain market share even if they have great products. The lack-lustre performance of Corel Office and Lotus SmartSuite throughout the 1990's is testament to this. The applications never gained much ground on Microsoft despite the quality of their products being always within touching distance of those from the Redmond giant.

"Nobody can deny Microsoft's skill at branding. You've only got to turn on 99% of PCs in the world to be hit with Microsoft's name. Great branding," says John Bell.
So, how do other companies compete with this? Sun's El Dandachi says, "StarOffice has been designed to ease the learning curve of moving from Microsoft Office. It's important because everyone is used to Microsoft products. So the user interface for StarOffice is designed to be familiar to users of Microsoft Office." This will no doubt help Sun, but we at Windows imagine it will take a lot more than interface tweaks to change the perception among the vast majority of users that office applications equal Microsoft.

||**||Rounding up|~||~||~|Your needs should determine your choice of office application. If you have a small business with basic word processing, spreadsheet and presentation needs and nothing more - then OpenOffice presents a strong argument. It covers the bases well, and while it isn't as polished as Microsoft's latest offering, it is free.

On the downside, if your business grows and your information workers have to collaborate with each other in a more sophisticated way than telephone and e-mail allows, then the limitations of OpenOffice will be exposed. Even in these circumstances you can always switch to a different package knowing that you have lost no money for your change of heart.

Microsoft's advances have opened a tantalising window of opportunity for the likes of OpenOffice and StarOffice to move in to the low-end of the market. It remains to be seen if any of these packages will dent Microsoft's dominance. Microsoft also faces a huge task persuading existing customers to upgrade from older and still very competent versions of Office, such as XP.

If you want an office application, however, that is geared towards sophisticated collaboration then it's hard to argue against Microsoft Office. The massive R&D budget spent by the company has resulted in Office well exceeding its original brief. If your business will make use of innovations such as IRM and XML support, as well as the many other high-end features, then accept no substitute.||**||

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