Houston: We have a problem with Office

The Texas city is phasing out Microsoft's productivity software in favor of Web-based applications from a local start-up.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
5 min read
Houston has begun to phase out Microsoft Office for its 13,000 city workers in favor of Web-based software from a local start-up.

The Texas city signed a five-year, $9.5 million contract last year with Houston-based SimDesk Technologies to provide city workers and, eventually, up to 3 million city residents with the company's software and services.

SimDesk offers a package of more than two dozen applications covering basic PC tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, calendars and e-mail. The applications include a subscription to SimDesk's Web-based services, which allow customers to store documents, messages and other data on a central server run by SimDesk. This data can be retrieved and manipulated from any device with a Web connection, including cell phones and handheld computers.

Ray Davis, SimDesk's founder and president, said the key to making it work is an extremely efficient protocol for transferring data to and from SimDesk's central server. The company has a single 32-processor Unisys server capable of handling 21 million users.

"It's not the typical client-server relationship," Davis said. "We use a patented, proprietary transfer protocol...that uses a very specific load-balancing technology we developed. Whether you're using a cell phone or the fastest Internet connection at the office, it reacts the same. You don't have to worry about bandwidth."

Such efficiency is the ticket to turning the hype surrounding Web services into reality, Davis said.

"Web services is a great idea; ubiquitous access to your data from any device is a great idea," he said. "But when you go and look at the costs and infrastructure involved--a school system can't afford the servers and software and routers involved in creating that type of environment. We've stripped away all dependencies that normally would be involved in handling Web services. We have no dependencies on Microsoft, Sun (Microsystems), Oracle or Linux."

Houston officials heard about SimDesk two years ago and began testing its software and services on public library PCs last year. Richard Lewis, chief information officer for the city, said response to the library trial was so good that when the city began looking for alternatives to Microsoft Office, SimDesk was a leading contender--in part, because Microsoft enacted last year potentially expensive new licensing plans.

"Microsoft respects the right of any customer to review software alternatives, but the discussion should go beyond price," a Microsoft representative said. "Office has a proven track record."

The resulting contract with the city of Houston calls for the installation of SimDesk on half of the 13,000 PCs used by its workers. Houston's Lewis said city workers have begun phasing in the software in four departments with a total of about 1,000 desktops. Workers switching to SimDesk will also get new hardware--a stripped down "Internet appliance" without PC frills such as local storage.

Lewis said that if the new software and hardware allow city workers to do their jobs without any sacrifice in productivity, the introduction of the project will be accelerated, promising significant savings in hardware, software and administration costs.

"I won't know for months whether this is going to really be a feasible alternative to Microsoft in the enterprise," he said. "If it is successful, we're only going to be buying Internet appliances for the next two years...The notion of trying to reduce your software license costs, you hardware costs, your support costs--those are all good, solid business goals, and we're obligated to pursue those where we can."

The third phase of Houston's SimDesk experiment allows any Houston resident with a library card--up to 3 million users--to install and use the application, all subsidized by the city as part of the contract with SimDesk.

Lewis said the goal is to ensure that every Houston resident has access to basic PC functions, whether they're using a public PC at the library, an old-hand-me-down laptop or a $50 Internet appliance.

"That's really what's driving this--our mayor (Lee P. Brown) is going to be the first mayor on the planet to really bridge the digital divide in a major city," Lewis said. "It just makes sense to make sure all sectors of our community have access to these kind of productivity tools."

The city of Chicago recently agreed to a pilot program using SimDesk, and Davis said the company is negotiating with Los Angeles and the national government of Brazil.

Thick and thin
SimDesk applications will open and edit most common data formats, but they don't include all the bells and whistles of Office and other full-fledged applications. Davis said he expects that many clients will continue to provide Office or similar applications for some power users, while using SimDesk for average workers and to provide universal access.

"We are not trying to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft Office," he said. "SimDesk can work alongside Microsoft Office, but it can do a lot more. You can't access an Office document on your cell phone."

Microsoft has endured a number of high-profile defections from its products in recent months. Hewlett-Packard, Sony and other PC makers have ditched Microsoft Works, the lower-priced consumer version of Office, in favor of cheaper software packages from Corel and Sun.

Paul DeGroot, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft, said such high-profile customer losses don't pose an immediate threat to Microsoft, but they signal changing attitudes that could hurt the software giant.

"It's not something Microsoft can be casual about or ignore," DeGroot said. "When a new product like this (SimDesk) gets a large reference account like this, it's very important. Customers need to know there's someone else that looked at the solution, adopted it and found a good basis for making the change."

SimDesk adds an interesting twist, DeGroot continued, by employing a "thin client" approach: Most of the heavy lifting is done by a central server, allowing the client software to run on relatively low-end devices.

"A very important thrust for Microsoft is to make the case for a fat client--for connectivity, for the enormous processing power available on the PC," DeGroot said. "They need to avoid the trend toward companies adopting a very server-centric, thin-client approach."