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We Won’t Be Saying Goodbye to MS Office Anytime Soon

December 21, 2010 1 comment

I believe Rich Internet Applications (RIA) will eclipse and replace the desktop productivity applications we currently use, but we won’t be saying goodbye to MS Office anytime soon, and here’s why. In my previous post, I rebuilt a 512MB XP desktop. Now I had a working system and wanted to get some work done. This PC came with a trial version of Office and a full version of Works. So why am I using OpenOffice rather than GoogleDocs, MS Office or MS Works?

I’ve used the MS Office suite at work for over 15 years and frequently used it at home too because the corporate license included home usage for employees. However, corporate licenses are less liberal these days and product licensing is now enforced rigidly. In addition, the Office products use a lot of memory. Cost and memory made Office a non-starter for me on this machine.

I tried MS Works, but found that the feature set is not sufficient and the workflow seems designed to make substituting Works for Office impractical. If you want to exchange documents with the world you need Office formats and Works doesn’t easily store into Office format – the workflow is closer to import/export. I was surprised by the number of small compatibility issues. Documents created in Works often appear slightly different when opened in the corresponding Office product.

Google Docs is free to anyone with a gmail account and I reasoned it wouldn’t use lots of memory, being web-based. I didn’t expect gdocs to be feature rich or mature and wasn’t disappointed. It’s an interesting project but not yet ready for professional use. I had meaningful problems with memory consumption and reliability. Gdocs is a Rich Internet Application (RIA) and the browser sucks up memory as a result. When I left the application idle for long periods it became unstable and lost data. I also looked at Microsoft’s Office Live, a similar offering that felt less evolved and suffered from unusable performance. Overall, I’m intrigued by the possibilities, but my experience didn’t provide a compelling reason to manage documents in the cloud, though I believe that will happen. There’s a lot of basic product work remaining with this platform, but it’s pretty mechanical stuff – the answers are known. Once that’s resolved there will be a lot of invention required to make managing documents in the cloud compelling for end users and workable in a corporate environment.

I experimented with OpenOffice.org (OOo) previously and expected good things from this free Office alternative, based on that trajectory. Gotta say I was a little disappointed. OOo now sports a rich feature set, but the rate of progress has clearly slowed. Perhaps that’s due to Oracle acquiring Sun? Actually, I believe interest is drying up because developers expect RIA offerings to eclipse conventional desktop apps in the future. Despite that, I’ve chosen to use OOo because it’s complete, stable, has reasonable performance and easily manages Office compatible formats. There are some formatting irregularities and it lacks the finish that Microsoft has honed through years of user testing in the Office suite. Microsoft Office does a great job anticipating what you meant to do and what you will want to do next. The difference is really noticeable. Takeaways:

  1. I believe office productivity tools are headed to the cloud as RIA’s. Google Docs demonstrates that RIA is still pretty green, but that’s solvable. A tougher challenge (and bigger opportunity) is making office productivity tools more compelling as connected services than they are as desktop apps for both home and corporate users. When the platform matures and MS Office meets Facebook there’s going to be a revolution.
  2. I believe OOo is declining in relevance – why invest energy in defeating the past when you can build for the future instead? Without the threat of a free alternative, Microsoft may resort to predatory practices.
  3. Evaluating alternatives demonstrates just how good the Office products are. I don’t believe anyone can compete with Office as a pure desktop application. However, the Office team should take a lesson from the Windows team (previous post) in turn around. If Microsoft focuses on protecting the Office franchise they will be unlikely to win customers in the cloud. Office Live feels like it’s headed in the correct direction.
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