OpenOffice 3 launch timed perfectly but will Sun, IBM exploit opportunity?

Sun and IBM could not have asked for better timing for the launch of OpenOffice 3, a major upgrade of the open source office suite.Both vendors are preparing to ship commercial offerings of StarOffice and Symphony based on the new OO 3 release and have a grand marketing opportunity if they heed what their target audiences really need.

Sun and IBM could not have asked for better timing for the launch of OpenOffice 3, a major upgrade of the open source office suite.

Both vendors are preparing to ship commercial offerings of StarOffice and Symphony based on the new OO 3 release and have a grand marketing opportunity if they heed what their target audiences really need.

Sun plans to launch StarOffice 9 on November 19. IBM? Symphony 1.2 is due to be released in October but I don’t know if it will use OpenOffice 3.0. I didn’t hear back from sources or IBM on the matter.

As the global economic crisis dries up credit and whacks IT budgets, corporate chiefs and administrators are going to be more open to a Microsoft Office alternative that is more compatible with Microsoft Office. And this one reportedly is just that. Version 3.0, for example, offers new support for Microsoft Access 2007 .accdb files and the ability to read Microsoft Office OpenXML files as well as enhanced support for VBA macros. The conversion tools are better, too.  For companies that planned to upgrade to Office 2007 in 2009, the money just may not be there anymore.

Version 3.0 also offers native Mac OSX support and a new Start Menu and GUI that is more pleasing to end users. This is a key audience that Sun and IBM and others must pay more attention to if they plan to gain any market traction for their office suites. End users are typically averse to changing software applications but will entertain the notion if they feel the substitute is not inferior to their current Microsoft desktop.  Here, marketing and training are necessities.

The bad news is that there are and will continue to be fewer desktops as payrolls shrink and unemployment rates jump globally.  In this climate, the notion that IT administrators can deploy OpenOffice to new workers as additive rather than as replacements for Microsoft Office becomes less compelling.

So vendors must sell OpenOffice hard and to do so they ramp up their respective marketing and training programs.  If they are serious about gaining market share, they need to dig deep to fund television and Web advertising campaigns to give OpenOffice products the kind of brand recognition they need to be deemed acceptable and to educate the millions of end users who don’t even know that  StarOffice and Symphony exist. There are tons and tons of people who don’t realize there is an alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite. Vendors of desktop products must get end user buy-in if they want to succeed.

IT administrators naturally love the pricetag of commercial OpenOffice versions but they worry about disrupting critical business processes in the short term, compatibility problems and support costs over the long term. No doubt, there will be significant training and migration costs involved in switching from Microsoft Office to StarOffice or Symphony. Sun and IBM ought to make training free or at very low cost and guarantee first line of support to customers who experience compatibility problems or application conflicts and generous training benefits such as free vouchers to customers serious about a switch. Sun and IBM should also make long term pledges to guarantee that desktop support costs won't rise too much over time. This will alleviate corporate concerns that the long term ROI won't be there. All of these guarantees will be expensive but worth it in the long run.

The time is right to strike but it may not last. Vendors ought to seriously consider such investments in such an unusual business climate in which companies are downright desperate to cut costs. 

So far, interest looks promising. I tried to download OpenOffice 3 myself today but could not due to the heavy traffic hitting the OpenOffice.org web site. According to a note posted on OpenOffice.org when I finally could get connected at 1 pm EST: “Apologies - our website is struggling to cope with the unprecedented demand for the new release 3.0 of OpenOffice.org. The technical teams are trying to come up with a solution.”