When choosing office productivity software -- the suite of functions, including word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software and an e-mail program -- the knee-jerk reaction is to first look at Microsoft Office. After all, it is the most ubiquitous. But popularity doesn’t matter to everyone.

Derek Featherstone, founder of Further Ahead, of Ottawa, a Web development firm, uses a combination of Apple's iWork on his Mac, which includes the Pages application for documents and Keynote for presentations. He also uses OpenOffice, an open source office productivity suite, "because it was free, compatible with pretty much every other office suite out there.” Featherstone says that he works on three computers at a time -- a Mac, a Windows-based PC, and an open-source Linux machine. "I wanted to be able to have a tool that worked no matter which computer I happened to be using at the time and not to have to pay for three licenses," Featherstone says. "As a small business, minimizing costs is essential. OpenOffice lets me do just that.”

Featherstone is one of a new breed of entrepreneur who believes that when it comes to office productivity software there’s more than one choice out there.

Small businesses miss out on upgrades

Right now Microsoft Office dominates the small and mid-size business market. However, many of these packages were purchased years ago, and were not upgraded, even though Microsoft refreshed the offering in 2003. What that means is that small businesses using an older Office version may be missing out on features enabling them to increase productivity. As it is, many small businesses don't use many features beyond the basic functionality.

“Ninety percent of MS Office’s higher functionality isn’t used by most users, who simply want to keep track of finances, write office letters, and put together small presentations, etc.” says Adam Braunstein, senior research analyst at the Robert Frances Group, a business advisory to technology executives.

“That's too bad,” Yankee Group analyst Gary Chen points out, “because Office comes out with cool things that people almost never discover -- such as support for tablet PCs, collaboration tools, and locking down sections in a Word document that can't be edited.” And yet, Microsoft has been spending a lot of time focused on the small business market, and currently has a free product out for small businesses. In addition, Microsoft is coming out with its newest version yet, Office 2007, with even more updated versions of its features. The bottom line is that the customers still aren't getting everything they could out of their product. “That left the door open for other start-ups to get in there," says Chen.

One of those is the commercial version of OpenOffice, the free office suite and Open Source project that Featherstone uses, called StarOffice. StarOffice is spear-headed by Sun Microsystems. It’s a neat alternative, says Chen, and supports much of what's available on Microsoft Office. Sun is trying to lure people in with snazzy features, such as multiple toolbars, migration aides, Web publishing tools, etc. It's giving Office a run for the money. CFOs are happy with it, though; StarOffice is a fraction of the cost of Microsoft Office.

Battle of the productivity programs

“With the many different formats out there you can send a file and the receiver can’t open it or if they do it looks weird,” says Chen.  Right now, Microsoft is the format that everyone can open.

OpenOffice is a cross platform. It can run on Linux. So, people can use whatever platform they want. And it’s free. Also, the online versions are not tied to an install on a particular computer, says Forrester analyst Michael Speyer. “You can use them anywhere that has Internet access.” Another thing to consider with the Open Source products is that there is an emphasis on introducing new, exciting features. There are a lot of OpenOffice choices and more coming. Look out for Google to make some waves in the area. Right now, Google offers some business applications over the Web, and considering the huge cash hoard that the company is sinking into research and development,  their products will only get better. Right now, their offerings are free, and in the get-what-you-pay-for kind of way, there are lots of ads. Reading distracting ads, however, isn’t the ideal situation to increase productivity at work.

The areas where the rival products still trail behind Office, says Andrea Peiro, CEO and founder, Small Business Technology Institute, are mostly related to collaboration -- such as documents version control, integration of the revision process with -email programs and interaction with some server-side technologies.  “In a multi-employee environment with highly structured document management processes, these features can be extremely important, but for most other situations these alternatives represent excellent low-cost options,” says Chen.

How to figure out what suite is right for your business

Chen recommends that small business owners ask themselves the following questions:

  • How much do you use the office suite?
  • Which features and functionality do you use and need?
  • Take a look at the complexity of the documents you use and produce and look at what level of support you need. Something to consider if you use free products is that if you want support you’ll need to pay extra.
  • What is your budget for the product and for support?

Office is much more expensive than its competition, running several hundred dollars per computer. If you are looking for something else to cast your vote for, Peiro suggests considering the following, which offer a high degree of compatibility with Office in terms of file formats:

OpenOffice This is a free multiplatform office suite and an Open Source project that’s compatible with all other major office suites.

WordPerfect Suite This old standby -- remember WordPerfect anyone? -- costs about $250.00.

602 PC Suite Low-cost alternative started in the Czech Republic. It includes a word processor, spreadsheet, photo editor, and photo album organizer.

ThinkFree Web-based office application. It’s free but doesn¹t include a database application.

Published on: Dec 1, 2006