Microsoft Office, Google Docs beware: This open-source startup is after your users

Latvian company OnlyOffice wants to create the Swiss watch of office suites and convince people there are valid choices beyond the big brands.

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OnlyOffice founder Lev Bannov: There are big players in the office suite market, but there's still a lot of room for newcomers with bright ideas.

Image: OnlyOffice

Seven and a half years ago, a group of Latvian and Russian multimedia developers decided to invest their money in an ambitious project to create a new office platform.

Initially it was called TeamLab and focused on project-management and team-collaboration tools.

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"Simultaneously, we were working on online document editors. Then we decided to merge these projects, and our solution received a warm welcome from the internet community, so we felt we'd chosen the right path," founder Lev Bannov tells ZDNet.

"Later, we dared to open up the source code of the project and rebrand it OnlyOffice."

He argues that although there are several big players in the market, there is still a lot of room for newcomers with bright ideas.

"What do you have, apart from Microsoft Office and Google Docs? Open-source LibreOffice, which is a derivative of OpenOffice, and some proprietary office suites based on it, such as WPS Office, SoftMaker FreeOffice, Hancom Office. In a way, Apple's Pages application is based on OpenOffice, too," he says.

But he believes that each of these options has its own disadvantages.

"Microsoft Office has a poor online version, which supports only 10 percent of its desktop functionality, and that could be done intentionally to support the desktop Microsoft Office. Google Docs can't be deployed on a private network, LibreOffice and all its derivatives have problems with Microsoft document formats," Bannov argues.

"Moreover, not all of them have online and mobile versions, and collaboration tools."

Bannov contrasts those points with OnlyOffice having cloud and server versions and desktop and mobile apps on the same code base.

"Our editors also show the highest compatibility with Microsoft Office formats," he says.

As of now, OnlyOffice has more than two million users worldwide, with most of them using the free products. However, it is being used by one Oracle department in UK, and also by Unisys.

The office suite also has a foot in the door of many educational institutions. Clients include the University of Brunswick, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, University of Paris-Sud, and the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology. Public organizations use OnlyOffice as well. For example, the French Red Cross and Germany's Social Democratic Party.

While the company recently opened an office in Dallas, its headquarters are in Latvian capital Riga, with most of the developers working in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, 250 miles east of Moscow. Altogether, 80 people are employed in the OnlyOffice team.

Because most of the users are not paying customers, the project is not yet profitable.

"We're still putting a lot of money into software engineering, but we've entered the stage of forming our business processes and developing a partner network. In a year we expect a massive expanding of our user base and a significant increase in our revenue," Bannov says.

He is convinced that OnlyOffice can become "the perfect open-source office suite for everyone". But for it to succeed and change the market situation, he knows it will have to change the mindset of potential customers, many of whom are happy with Microsoft's products and have never really thought about testing an alternative.

"Our plan is to continue working on our document editors as we want them to be ideal, like a Swiss watch, so our to-do list is long. We'll also have to put effort into convincing people that there are other office suites, apart from Microsoft Office," he says.

"That was one of the reasons why we chose an open-source model. We want be open, want people to trust us, want to overcome that barrier they have in mind, those strong beliefs that there's nothing but Microsoft Office, that nothing better could be created. We won't change our mind about open source."

Bannov says he ultimately sees OnlyOffice becoming a firm that provides consulting, technical support and remote managed services to companies using its open-source products.

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