Companies trying, not buying, Office alternatives

There's a lot of interest in Google Apps and other alternatives to Microsoft Office, but so far Microsoft's suite remains dominant.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

Companies are actively looking for Microsoft Office alternatives such as Google Apps, but so far their interest hasn't dented the productivity suite's dominance, a Forrester Research study released today said.

"Adoption of alternatives relative to Microsoft Office is paltry, but interest remains high, with more than a quarter of companies actively looking at or experimenting with Web-based alternatives," Forrester said in the study. "While the free versions of these programs make it easy for companies to try, concerns over user acceptance and compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats continue to hinder broader deployments."

A Forrester study shows 72 percent of people are looking at alternatives to Microsoft Office.
A Forrester Research study shows 72 percent of people are looking at alternatives to Microsoft Office. Forrester Research

Interest in the alternatives should increase, though, because of a variety of factors: they can be cheaper, they're getting gradually more capable, and IT departments will segment users into categories and not everyone will get Microsoft Office.

There are signs Google Apps in particular is raising concerns at Microsoft. For example, the company last week blogged about "the Google tax," arguing that there are unseen costs to using Google Apps beyond the $50 per user per year fee. The biggest indicator, though, is that it's launched its own online Office suite, signaling that the idea has merit.

Google Apps will get some attention this week at the Google I/O conference, where Google traditionally espouses its vision that life is better in the cloud. The company is working to make Apps more capable, adding new features; trying to advance Web standards such as Web Sockets and offline storage that will enable more features; and trying to improve the performance of browsers and the Web so the apps can become more responsive.

Productivity suites aren't just about Microsoft Office vs Google Apps, of course. Other options include traditional software such as IBM's Lotus Symphony, Corel's WordPerfect Office, and Oracle's OpenOffice, as well as other online options such as Zoho's suite.

In Forrester's survey of 150 IT decision makers, 3 percent said they're actively implementing Web-based alternatives, 10 percent said they're piloting or experimenting, 15 percent said they're actively looking, 44 percent said they're somewhat interested, and 27 percent said they're not interested.

Regarding motives, improving worker productivity was the top option. Reducing license fee costs was second, and reducing dependency on Microsoft was third.

With numerous features missing from online suites that are common in Office, one might be surprised to hear productivity as a reason to move to Google Apps. But it has one big asset: collaboration is built in, with a server housing a single copy of a document and managing how multiple people can edit it simultaneously. That can be an improvement to crude alternatives such as e-mailing a document among colleagues or managing how it's accessed on a central server.

Access to documents from smartphones and multiple computers also can be an advantage.

Google Apps often begins with e-mail use but spreads from there to the rest of the online tools. Google Apps' core includes word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and calendar apps.

"E-mail is the lead-in for many Google deployments, with Docs uptake happening in a grass-roots fashion or being "turned on" as a company ramps its use. Google reports, however, that Docs adoption is growing at a much faster rate than its other apps," Forrester said.

But Web-based Office alternatives aren't up to Office's abilities by a long shot today.

"Content and collaboration professionals should only consider them as replacements for casual users," Forrester advised. "However, they can provide complementary collaboration features for all users."