When talking to business people, if you suggest they consider alternatives to Microsoft Office, they invariably have the same response. That they must remain with MSOffice because they need to interchange documents with customers and access their existing documents.
But does this really make sense? Read on for some analysis...
This article was inspired by this article on The Register.
In thinking about this problem, I am reminded of the medieval times (and earlier), when the priesthood were probably the best educated in the land. The High Priests kept all the books, were amonst the few that knew how to read and write, and had the ear of the monarchy. As the guardians of knowledge, they wielded considerable power. Their power arose from this monopoly, and it was not in their best interests to share this knowledge for it would dilute their power. Thus, princes and paupers alike were beholden to the priesthood to advise them and act as intermediaries between them and the knowledge they sought.
Fast forward to the 20th century, where modern businesses run on computers, and most would cease to function without them. Our reliance on technology for everyday life is incredibly far reaching; just think about the last time you had a blackout. Did you feel like you couldn't do anything? Couldn't cook, work, watch TV...
If we look at some of the most pervasive aspects of technology, we see that they owe their success to a common attribute. Nothing would happen without electricity for a start. And our appliances can only work because they are all designed to have the same physical plug and the same voltage and frequency (eg. 240V at 50Hz). I can buy a light bulb from anywhere because they all use the same socket. I can buy a radio from any manufacturer because the FM radio signal will work with any of them. I can choose my favourite TV because the tuners can all pick up the same signal. I can shop around for the best deal on a CD player, because no matter which CD I buy they will all work in whatever player I choose. The internet owes its phenomenal success to the fact that any device that talks TCP/IP can connect and participate. So what do all these marvellous things have in common?
Standards. Standards for the size and shape of the electrical plug, the power regulation, the FM radio signal, the TV signal (PAL, SECAM, NTSC), the Redbook CD Audio format, TCP/IP and its related protocols... With standards, consumers benefit from phenomenal choice, while manufacturers compete on value-add and extra features. This encourages innovation and competition, and creates thriving markets. So standards are good for everyone! :)
By contrast, monopoly markets tend to stagnate and leave little incentive for innovation. By strangling competition on the altar of extreme capitalistic success, everyone suffers but the vanquisher.
Now, back to business. Ask any CEO what would happen if a smart bomb went off near their data centre and wiped out all of their computers and all their data, including backups. It would be absolutely devastating. Most companies rely on computers for their day to day business, and the bulk of their business value is tied up in the data stored in these computers.
Before this sounds like an advertisement for doing backups (which reminds me...) let us now ask ourselves. How is our data stored? For a company that uses Microsoft Office products, all their data is locked up in proprietary formats. Formats that only Microsoft can unlock for them. Formats that change from one version of the software to the next, to keep things incompatible. Microsoft are the high priests of the business world. Big business is beholden to Microsoft to access their own data, the lifeblood of the company. Its as if a little Microsoft munchkin sits in the back room of every corporation, madly transcribing invoices, reports and memos, into MS-speak that only they can understand.
And once the company stops paying the MS tax, known by some as an annual licensing fee, the MS munchkin gets recalled to Redmond central. And your data is stranded.
But its even worse; everyone knows what pain is involved in upgrading from one Office version to the next. Loading a file that was written in Word 97 in Word 2000 is always a crap-shoot, and typically some formatting is lost or screwed up. When was the last time you went back into your archive of old files created a few years ago and tried opening some documents? What happens when you are running Word 2003 and the tax office asks for that memo you wrote 6 years ago. Will you still be able to read it? Do you still have a PC running Windows 98 and Office 97 around to access it?
If the largest most successful software company in the world can't get backward compatability right, what hope do us mere mortals have? Or do they really have a good incentive to do so? Provided the migration path is "good enough" they can keep driving users forward, and collecting more taxes in the form of upgrade charges (where they make most of their profits).
So does it really make sense for a business to pay a 3rd party to store valuable corporate data in a proprietary format that only they can read? That breaks after a few versions? Where there is no guarantee that it will be accessible in the future? Where the only specification of the file format is the proprietary source for the app that created it (that we will never see)?
Or does it make sense to store corporate data in an open format? Where you can buy software from multiple vendors who compete on features and service and value-add? Where you aren't locked in to a single choice in perpetuity, and forced to pay annual taxes to continue to have access to your own data? Where you can engage a developer to write custom software to process your data in ways that the ISVs had not envisaged? With an open, published specification, we have an even playing field. Your data will still be accessible in the future, regardless of whether or not the software maker is still in business, let alone still selling the version of the software that created the data.
If you chose to switch to OpenOffice instead of MSOffice, you can store your corporate data in XML, using a schema that is published by the OASIS standards group. And you can still exchange documents with your customers, because OpenOffice can read and write MSOffice documents. So while remaining compatible, you can still take advantage of the openness that is afforded by using a standard file format. And of course, you have a few other bonuses too. OpenOffice is free and open source, so you can get all the benefits too. And you get the choice of platform, as it runs on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, and the *BSD platforms. Choice is a wonderful thing - but don't wait until its gone to realise how valuable it is.
How long is your corporate memory?