MS Office alternatives: Many are trying, few are buying

When it comes to deploying Microsoft Office alternatives such as Google Apps, Zoho or Lotus Symphony, enterprise IT managers are in a state of intense curiosity but are still not ready for widespread adoption, according to a new Forrester research report entitled "Market Update: Office Productivity Alternatives."

What they are willing to do more and more is complement Office with alternative tools and, in some cases, do full Office replacements for specific employee groups, writes Forrester analyst Matthew Brown. Regardless of the low adoption rates of Office alternatives, companies are eager to cut license costs, eliminate software assurance and curb dependency on Microsoft.

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Office alternatives, however, have only a tiny slice of the enterprise office productivity pie even as the buzz increases around Google Apps and other alternatives. Of the 150 IT decision-makers that responded to Forrester's survey, only 8% support Google Apps, 8% support Oracle Open Office (recently released back into the community as OpenOffice.org), 5% support Corel WordPerfect Office and 4% support IBM Lotus Symphony.

Yet a higher percentage (46% on average) of survey respondents are still "somewhat interested in", "actively looking at" or "piloting" alternatives.

So why are they afraid to pull the trigger and replace Office?

IT Loves Web-based Alternatives, But Not Enough to Buy Them

Enterprise IT is hung up on alternatives like Google Apps and Zoho that are purely Web-based, but for testing more than for full-scale deployment. For example, e-mail is often the lead-in for Google Apps use but Google Docs uptakes only happen in a "grass-roots fashion or are turned on as a company ramps its use."

The numbers don't lie. Despite 44% of survey respondents being "somewhat interested in" in Web-based productivity tools and 25% "actively looking" or "piloting", only 3% report that they have implemented Web-based Office alternatives (i.e. spent money on them).

The obstacles to broad deployment, according to Forrester's research, continue to be user acceptance and learning curve and compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats.

Office Replacements Only for Small Segments of Workforce

When an organization does support Office alternatives, that does not mean Microsoft Office is then thrown out the window. Every survey respondent who reported supporting an Office alternative also supports some version of Microsoft Office.

This reinforces that view that Office alternatives, both Web-based and desktop-based, serve as replacements for certain groups in the company, according to Forrester. For example, contractors, temps and deskless workers would be candidates for a full-on Web-based alternative and lawyers would be candidates for Corel WordPerfect's PDF editor and automated features designed for legal departments.

Yet for most information workers who generate original content and rely on file format interoperability, Web-based alternatives are used as complementary tools to mix collaboration features with older versions of Microsoft Office.

The Threat to Microsoft Office Upgrades

Office alternatives may not appear to be a direct threat to Microsoft's cash cow, but they could put future Microsoft Office upgrade cycles in jeopardy, according to Forrester.

"With more choice," writes Brown,"productivity decision-makers will delay Office upgrades as they evaluate alternatives as part of the sourcing process."

Forrester has also found that its clients are using Office alternatives as leverage when they negotiate with Microsoft about Office upgrades.

"We expect the role of office alternatives in the market only to grow as vendors make improvements to close the functionality and compatibility gap, and as buyers continue to show interest in cutting costs by provisioning differently to different types of users," Brown writes.

All of this makes the arrival of Microsoft's Office 365 cloud productivity platform more important, notes Forrester. It will provide a lift to both Microsoft and providers of Web-based Office alternatives.

"Office 365 will have a major impact in accelerating the transition to Web-based platforms for office productivity integrated with collaboration tools," writes Brown. "Alternatives vendors will say that they were the first to market, but Office 365 will undoubtedly steal some of their thunder."

This story, "MS Office alternatives: Many are trying, few are buying" was originally published by CIO.

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