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Will free office suites supplant Microsoft as the industry leader?

With two new office suites going free, can Microsoft maintain its high price tag on Office? Don thinks it can--and will.

Office 2007
Office 2007
CNET Networks

Quite a bit of talk has arisen today over two of Microsoft's competitors (Google and IBM) offering free office suites in an attempt to supplant Microsoft as the office king. And now that this is happened, some are wondering if Microsoft will finally face reality and offer its own Office product for free so it can compete.

The possibility of having Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the rest for free sure sounds awfully nice, but if you think Microsoft would give it up for free, you're dreaming.

As NPD announced just last week, Office 2007 is performing extremely well. According to the research firm, Office 2007 on Windows is selling at roughly double the rate of Office 2003. Will two free solutions alter the unprecedented sales figures Microsoft is currently enjoying? Not a chance.

As someone who has used both Google's Office Suite and another free product, OpenOffice, I can say that neither of those programs can possibly stack up to Windows Office. Believe me, I wish I could say that both do, but the sad truth is they don't.

For example, try to do everything you can in Excel on a free Office solution and I'll guarantee you'll be back to Redmond in no time. Regardless of where your loyalties lie, it's impossible to compare these free products with Office--the support is horrible, the interface is a bit clunky and all of them are underpowered. In fact, OpenOffice is better-equipped to compete with Office 97 than Office 2007.

Sure, this may not be a popular opinion among the open-source, Microsoft-hating crowd, and I understand that, but at what point do you need to wake up and realize that your pet projects still don't compare to Redmond's? Do I wish free programs could rival a ridiculously expensive product? Sure. But until that happens, I'm forced to pay an exorbitant fee for Microsoft's software.

Regardless of functionality, a more compelling reason why Office won't go free is its immense installed base. According to recent numbers, the Office installed base has hit over 100 million. With that many people using just one product, how many will actually give up on it? Even worse, how many businesses are willing to go off the beaten path and try a new office product when the business has been so reliant on that application for so long?

Oftentimes, the argument is made that regardless of your stance, Microsoft is still competing against open-source and free software solutions. And while this may be true when it comes to operating systems, this couldn't be any more false when evaluating the office market.

A couple of free office suites will do nothing to change Microsoft's ways, but a mass denouncement of Office by 75 million of that 100 million installed base might actually do it. But can we muster a group of 75 million to denounce Office? I doubt it.

Sad as it is, we're cultivating an office software market that is utterly dominated by one company. And whether or not we like it, the business world runs on Office.

Now go pay too much money for a $50 software suite. Trust me, you'll like it.