Microsoft Office: Any Alternatives?

As the unholy offspring of Dr. Phil and Suze Orman might say, a costly relationship can make or break your fiscal health. As good stewards of budgetary dollars, IT professionals must always be re-evaluating service- and software-provider relationships. A business can't afford to be married to any one solution. Why, then, is Microsoft Office a sacred cow in many organizations?

From our perspective--both from speaking with organizations that have made the move and from having gone through sacred-cow change processes like this--it's not so much a question of whether organizations should use free office-suite software, but rather how much to use and when. When you consider the cost of the incumbent Microsoft software (a couple of hundred dollars per license) and multiply that by hundreds or thousands of licenses, it becomes clear it's not a matter of justifying the switch, but rather explaining the additional expense of keeping Microsoft Office around.

Think you know Microsoft from OpenOffice?











Although you're likely to meet resistance from multiple corners when evaluating whether to leave Microsoft Office, if you do decide that the significant financial benefits of switching outweigh the reasons for sticking with Office, there are guideposts to follow to make the migration manageable (see "9 Steps to a Successful Open-Office Migration" in the image gallery).

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Emotional Attachment

The fiscal rationale for switching becomes clear when you consider that many users of this reasonably expensive software--secretaries, administrative assistants, clerical workers, sales folks and other nonanalyst positions--are simply writing memos in Word (perhaps with embedded tables and tables of contents) or doing spreadsheet operations. In contrast, most organizations have trouble justifying even a couple of hundred dollars for a chair.

Even when you consider other apps in the suite, such as PowerPoint and Outlook, the fact is that 90 percent of the folks in your enterprise use only the basic functions of the suite. Alternatives, like, StarOffice Evolution and Thunderbird, are viable and less expensive, but suggest such options in a tech steering committee meeting without backup and you'll be shouted down.

People like Microsoft Office and don't want to switch. Perhaps there really is a "value add" that Office brings to your organization--through integration, ease of use and so on--but if so, it should be articulated as a real dollar figure in a conservative manner, and a financial net present value calculation should be performed.

Still, end users tend to have visions of pitchforks and hard-to-use software whenever someone brings up switching to anything other than Office. But they may be pleasantly surprised when they see the alternatives.

Solveig Haugland, the founder of, one of many organizations that provides training and support for OpenOffice users, relates a relevant story: A client organization's meeting to discuss potential use of OpenOffice was under way, and Haugland's client was typing notes, which were then projected on a screen. Almost everyone agreed that Microsoft Office alternatives would be "too hard." The client asked, "What do you think I'm using to take notes?" The answer came back "Microsoft Word"; in fact, the client was using OpenOffice Writer, which disarmed some of the "too hard" objections immediately. This scenario would likely have played out the same way were the client using Evolution, Thunderbird or impressive up-and-coming Office alternatives such as (which provides both free remote and relatively inexpensive locally hosted office-software options).

You might remember that in the late 1980s, word on the street was that switching from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word was also "too hard," but managers switched anyway, probably because Word's total cost of ownership was better.

"Should We See Other People?"

For some organizations, the decision around office suites is all about charting their own destiny and deciding when to spend money rather than having this choice thrust upon them. Perhaps the most famous case in point is well-known music-supply manufacturer Ernie Ball. After an unpleasant raid by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), CEO Sterling Ball did away with Microsoft products rather than continue to deal with BSA audits and continuing upgrade costs. Many organizations have made the switch--changing just isn't mainstream yet. If your boss is nervous about blazing a trail, see this wiki for information about other StarOffice and OpenOffice deployments.

Most researchers put Microsoft Office's share of the market at more than 90 percent. However, virtually all that market share comprises old versions of the product. And among IT shops that haven't opted into long-term volume licensing with Microsoft--often because of cost considerations--multiple versions abound. Having, say, three different versions of office-productivity software among office workers can be a helpdesk nightmare and add to IT's total support burden.

Microsoft, however, has masterfully created barriers to switching from its Office product. The lock-in comes from a number of sources: Because of Office's high retail price, companies turn to OEM licenses, which are tied to hardware. Such licenses cannot be transferred to newer computers, and the nontransferability leads organizations to seek out volume licensing, with various stipulations and fiscal incentives that call for long-term contracts. It's akin to signing a multiyear cell-phone agreement, knowing that prices will fall as soon as you sign. (For more on Microsoft volume-licensing programs, see the list of links provided with this story on page 1. Also see "Street Pricing of Microsoft Office" in the image gallery).

For many organizations that lease equipment to replace PCs, using Microsoft Office means having to purchase new licenses or continue to pay on a volume-license agreement. Economic reality dictates that some companies can't do this on an ongoing basis. For Haugland's clients, which range from large, publicly traded restaurant companies to big local governments, it's all about the money. One client saved $300,000 right off the bat by making the switch (see "Cost Savings of a Microsoft Divorce and an OpenOffice Marriage" in the image gallery).

Risk Vs. Reward

One major consideration is product viability--but this risk is significantly lower with a suite such as StarOffice or OpenOffice than with, say, a proprietary Microsoft Office work-alike package produced by some fly-by-night company and sold at Best Buy for $10. The risk is much lower simply because the source code of StarOffice and OpenOffice is freely available, and security problems (which ultimately are the only "must-patch" issues) can be dealt with by many people, not just by an organization that may go belly-up. And StarOffice, while commercial, does have source code available and could be a good choice for an organization where there's reticence from management to adopt a product if there's not a "company behind it."

To be fair to Microsoft, the product lifecycle treadmill for Office has improved over the years (see "Microsoft Office Lifecycle" in the image gallery). Life isn't too bad when you can count on security updates for almost 10 years. For some, this stability may be more important than any savings. On the other hand, this type of lifecycle commitment is only necessary with proprietary software--it's impossible to be completely screwed by a security bug when you've got the source code.

Getting User Buy-in

Understand that moving to a new office-productivity suite will be a huge change from the end-user perspective. Be ready for resistance and have a "WIIFM" (what's in it for me?) answer ready. For example, perhaps departments can avoid using their own budgets if the organization embarks on this change. Whatever the positive results of moving to a new suite may be, if users don't know about them, they can't be supportive. Also, be flexible and have a plan for dealing with questions such as "How will we support disabled users?" or "What are we going to do about macros?"

"Training the trainer" is a best practice, perhaps because it creates champions for the process within your organization. As Ernie Ball's IT director, Jeff Whitmore, told us, "We trained a few people and they trained other people." The software, frankly, isn't all that complicated--it's not as if it's a new ERP system. Breaking through to folks was mostly, Whitmore said, "about changing the mindset, making people understand that it doesn't need to be Microsoft to be useful."

Many organizations have had "train-the-trainer" programs in the past, and such experience will help dictate how many trainers you'll need--if IT has not run the programs in the past, check with HR or your training department for guidance. If you can't gather enough "train-the-trainer" participants, determine a training cost per user or the cost of bringing a consultant in to train everyone. The bottom line is that you should know what training will cost and calculate that when evaluating whether to stick with Microsoft Office. If a different choice will avoid Microsoft licensing costs, treat that as a savings (use a positive number); if a different choice costs something for licensing, represent that as a negative number. Do the same thing with training, support or any other cost you can think of associated with a switch at your organization. Soft costs (such as the unknown opportunity cost of people acting as trainers rather than doing their normal jobs) are typically factored in to this kind of analysis--check with your accounting and budget folks to see what types of factors are usually included in fiscal analyses at your organization.

As you complete your fiscal analysis, be aware that someone will likely consider the project in the context of other organizational initiatives--in your organization's portfolio of projects, does this one save the most and position your company well for the future? Sure, it may save you money, but does it save as much money as other contemplated projects? Or, do you even have the luxury of devoting staff time to this type of project? A switch like this is for an organization that's optimizing, not one in fire-fighting mode, since the move will take resources away from other initiatives and projects. Above all, as in all fiscal analyses, be conservative. Don't overestimate savings, and don't underestimate costs.

Finally, any forward-thinking company will have some tolerance for organizational change; the trick, as with the network world, is not to introduce too many changes at once, so work with your management team to fully understand other changes that may be introducing organizational "turbulence."

Making The Move

You may not be able to leave Microsoft Office entirely. Many organizations have built Frankenstein-like application systems using these products or simply can't give up their critical Excel macros. (The reality is, any business process that relies so heavily on a spreadsheet should probably be moved to a real database, but that's a topic for another day.) Of course, a certain number of macros help with efficient workflow, and many Office alternatives--such as OpenOffice--support macros; if you want to get up to speed, you may want to factor in outside help, and organizations such as can help with recrafting macros.

You'll likely continue to support Microsoft Office at least in the short term, so don't forget to account for this in your planning. Identify the low-hanging fruit first: folks who need basic word processing, spreadsheets and charting. Then identify a strategy for interoperability within the organization. Specifically, how will users share documents and data? Out of the box, for example, Word cannot open OpenOffice Writer's native format. To address this, you can enable saving under Microsoft native formats automatically, but depending on document complexity, your users may run into problems when exchanging documents. Also, make sure that the Office Viewers are available and deployed to everyone so that they can read any e-mails sent by Office-bound cronies.

You may not have to resign yourself to living with two solutions for some time. Whitmore told us that he completely migrated away from Microsoft solutions in about 90 days. But many organizations may, because of tight integration or even politics, have to adopt an "80/20" mentality: 80 percent new, 20 percent old. If you do live with two suites in the short term, you'll have to learn to live with two types of file formats: native Microsoft Office file formats (soon to be Open Office XML) and ODF (Open Document Format). For a discussion of the formats, see the list of related links on page 1. You can download a plug-in to allow Microsoft Word to save in ODF (Excel and PowerPoint plug-ins are in the works too). Whatever you do, test, test, test. As Haugland says, "Anyone doing a transition should do a couple of months of testing with interested users." This will let users feel involved and let you snag problems before a wider rollout.

Haugland has more sage advice to facilitate the change: "An important part of any evaluation is to do a companywide 'lunch and learn,' to compare Office and OpenOffice side by side." Once users and IT staff see the high functionality and reasonably low learning curve (true for any of the alternatives we mentioned), they'll be much more inclined to actively participate in a migration. Make sure users are informed both regarding the functionality they might lose as well as functionality they might gain from the migration. OpenOffice enables the creation of PDFs directly from within the native applications, for example, and also includes a powerful "OpenOffice Draw" application, much like CorelDraw or Visio, that is significantly more powerful than basic object drawing within Microsoft Office. Thus, most users won't have to license Adobe Acrobat or Visio. Support consultants and trainers can be had at important point to make to the business office if they are nervous that support will evaporate if the only reason folks support OpenOffice is that they consider it a fun hobby. Indeed, there is a powerful capitalist reason for open-source solutions to be viable for years to come.

Jonathan Feldman is director of information services for the city of Asheville, N.C., and a contributing editor to Network Computing. Previously, he was director of professional services at Entre Solutions, an infrastructure consulting company based in Savannah, Ga. Write to him at [email protected].