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Monday, 13 February 2006 00:56

Microsoft or Linux - the hard sell

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About six months ago, after a chat with some local Linux evangelists, I decided to take the bold step (at least for me it was bold) to download a copy of Open Office.org 2.0. As a long standing user of successive versions of the less than brilliant but workable Microsoft Office package, I wanted to see if it was true that you really can get a professional quality and compatible office productivity package for free.

Before we go any further, it must be said that for my needs Open Office.org 2.0 proved to be as good as any Office version Microsoft has produced. However, I still unloaded the free package after trialling it for three months.

My problem with switching from Microsoft Office to Open Office.org was, and still is, that I simply don't need to. I had already paid for the latest version of Office XP and it worked fine. Open Office.org, from my experience, was just as good, just as stable and virtually interchangeable with Microsoft Office. The look and feel of the free software was sufficiently familiar that I could start using it without any instruction. But it was the little bit of difference that made me stay with Microsoft. I had to remember to save my documents in Microsoft format, the interface was slightly different and had a sort of Home Brand supermarket look and, every now and then, I ran into a function that worked a little differently.

The total result for me as a user of the latest version of Microsoft Office was sticking with what I had. However, I try to imagine what it might be like for someone with Microsoft Office 97 running on Windows 98 who needed to upgrade to a new computer or someone buying their first computer. Assuming that person upgraded to a Windows rather than a Linux based computer, which is a separate question, would they be prepared to pay hundreds of dollars extra for a copy of Microsoft Office knowing that they can get virtually the same thing for free? My bet is that initially most users would and a small proportion would not. But in the long run, Microsoft in the office productivity space will be fighting an increasingly steeper uphill battle.

A major problem for Microsoft has been the increasing commoditisation of computer hardware. The cheaper computers become, the more apparent is the incredibly expensive Microsoft Windows and Office software components of a purchase. Windows and Office are now almost doubling the cost of some hardware purchases. Some smart white box retailers are now cottoning on to the fact that they can offer Linux based systems running Open Office.org on the same computers to customers for hundreds of dollars cheaper than the Microsoft versions. The challenge for Microsoft, which has become addicted to making huge profits from selling its commodity software, is how it can convince customers that continuing to pay through the nose for its brand of software is worth it. For Microsoft, that is becoming an increasingly harder sell.

Probably Microsoft's greatest strength has been its branding and marketing. For the home user this is everything. Many, if not most, home users have never heard of Open Office.org, which is an unfortunately geeky name to use for a software suite, whereas Microsoft spends hundreds of millions each year on making sure its brand is front and centre. In the corporate world, however, where purchasing decisions are made by a well-informed cost conscious MIS manager or CIO, the choice between spending a million dollars or more for a 10,000 user license of the latest version of Microsoft Office or nothing for a similar free open source version may be too big to ignore.

Globally there have so far only been a few cases of corporations, government departments and educational institutions opting to go for Open Office.org. However, the buzz is starting to get louder and most CIOs are at least considering the option. For Microsoft, the big danger of the corporate world going to an open source office productivity solution is that what happens at the office and in the classroom will most likely be mirrored in the home. It is a reasonable bet that office workers and school kids will usually want their computers at home to be running similar software to that in the office or classroom and, if that software is free, why would they not download it?

Microsoft, of course, realises all of this and its answer is to try to persuade users to upgrade to the next version of its Windows operating system Vista - its first foray into the world of 64-bit computing - and a new version of Office called Office 12. According to Microsoft, Office 12 will offer users something completely different, a paradigm shift as it were. However, Microsoft admits that there will be a learning curve involved. Critics have been quick to point out that most Office users, who have had a decade or more to become familiar with the tricks and quirks of Office may not take kindly to being forced into such paradigm shifts.

As Linux guru, Jon 'maddog' Hall, pointed out in an interview recently, in the past Microsoft has been able to successfully transition its user base to a new way of doing things because there has been no viable alternative in the marketplace. When it comes to commoditised office productivity software, however, why would users want to spend money on a new snazzy Word or Excel package that they have to learn and get used to, when they can either keep what they've got or download a free copy of an open source version that does the job just as well. For someone like me, the question is would Office 12 enable me to write this article any faster, better or easier? I think not.


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Stan Beer

 

Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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