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Is it Time to Dump Office?

Five things to keep in mind when assessing free alternatives to Microsoft

Improvements in open source and software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms mean more alternatives to Microsoft Office (see chart).We checked in with Guy Creese, research vice president with IT research and advisory group Gartner, and Rob Helm, managing vice president of research with Directions on Microsoft, an independent Microsoft technology consulting company in Kirkland, Wash., for some expert views on what to consider.

Environment. If you use a lot of Microsoft documents, you may be stuck, because other solutions aren't great for translating formats, Creese says. But if you use Lotus Notes, a switch to Lotus Symphony can be easy. And if your workers are mostly viewing and lightly editing via mobile phones, online SaaS solutions could be a good choice.

Usage patterns. Are your workers casual Office users or do they require advanced functions such as track changes and Pivot tables? Do they depend on a laundry list of macros that would be supported by Office only?

Training. Switching to OpenOffice may still cost you in productivity and training time. But Helm says businesses switching to Office 2007 or 2010 from legacy versions may need to train workers anyway, because Microsoft made considerable interface changes starting with Office 2007.

Support. If you require a traditional support structure, then you may be stuck with Office. But if you're OK with having questions answered by the open-source user community via Twitter or a blog, then it's a different story.

Integration. If you depend on a third-party tool that requires integration with Office, you may have to stay with Microsoft.

Tool Pros Cons
Google Apps Ease of use, online collaboration and sharing, concurrent editing of documents, affordability. Limited support, few advanced functions; only word processing documents can be edited offline.
OpenOffice Full-fledged client-side software without licensing woes; similarity to older Office versions eases user transition. Incompatible with .docx files; slower than Office and most alternatives.
ThinkFree Highly compatible with Microsoft Office docs, offers a good blend of desktop and SaaS benefits. Some users complain of a confusing interface, one of the slowest online productivity services.
Zoho A range of extras beyond the typical productivity apps--including CRM for as many as three users; strong mobile phone support. Limited support; only word processing documents can be edited offline.
Lotus Symphony Offers a lot of synergies with Lotus Notes, stronger tech support options than most Microsoft alternatives. Known to bog down computer memory.


Self-described tech geek Ericka Chickowski also writes for Consumers Digest, the Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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This article was originally published in the November 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Is it Time to Dump Office?.

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