Thinking outside the Office box

Organisations are aware that there are, finally, viable alternatives to the Microsoft upgrade cycle

"There appears to be no compelling technical reason or business case for upgrading to these new Microsoft software products" — US Department of Trade statement.

"We want to explore what some of the alternatives are [to Microsoft's new products]" — the US Federal Aviation Administration statement.

Sections of the US government are reacting publicly against Microsoft's upgrade push. Apart from the education agency, Becta, the UK public sector has been less bullish, but there is certainly discontent in commercial and governmental organisations alike. This past week ZDNet UK has heard from senior IT figures at two major household names who are seriously questioning whether a move to Vista and Office 2007 makes commercial sense.

There is of course nothing new in seeing large organisations wait for at least one service pack before adopting a new version of Microsoft Office or Windows. But this is the first time we have seen such organisations look so seriously at the alternatives; indeed, this is the first time for over a decade that there have been real alternatives.

And it is not just Windows revenue that is in danger here. The chief information officer we spoke to, whose company employs some 50,000 staff, made the comment that many of those who use PCs are not power users and do not require most of the functionality of Microsoft Office. It's a question he has been tentatively asking his staff while exploring alternatives such as getting employees to experiment with Google Apps.

Few knowledge workers are true power users. Most will make heavy use of a handful of features in general-purpose applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel. Almost all will use email and other internet-related applications, and some perhaps a more specific application depending on their role: Powerpoint, mind-mapping software, project management software or an IDE, for instance. And so chief information officers like the one we spoke to are beginning to ask employees whether they really need a full office suite upgrade, or whether they can in fact work with online apps such as those provided by Google. That people use Google Apps at all indicates that they value the convenience of an online application, and the ease of collaboration that this brings, above any doubts they may harbour about trusting Google with their data.

Microsoft may be pushing to close the gap with its own hosted Windows Live strategy, but ultimately trust is much harder to build than new features — and trust is one currency Google appears to hold in abundance.

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