Office-killer Will Be About Features, Not File Type

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A few weeks ago, I received a job description via e-mail attachment. It was a DAT file, which, of course, my Windows-based system cannot open. Blaming a Mac somewhere upstream, I wrote a nice mail asking for a DOC or RTF file that I could, you know, read.


I still have not received a usable version of the document, and my handful of attempts to explain what I need have been met with the electronic equivalent of blank stares.


This is why Microsoft Office continues to completely dominate a market in which it is clearly overfeatured, if not overpriced -- almost nobody needs or uses 80 percent or more of the sophisticated tools in the $400 suite. It's good software -- frankly, none of its perceived rivals even comes close -- but it's forced on small businesses and individuals because Microsoft refuses to use default file types that its competitors can effectively manage.


It may sound like I'm about to praise IBM for its announced plans to re-market OpenOffice as a blow against Microsoft's onerous -- and sometimes, downright sleazy -- market advantage here. Really, how would FireFox have fared if you used it to browse a Web page only to be told it was in an unknown format?


But like many other observers, I'm unmoved by IBM's move. It's fighting a battle that's long-since lost.


IBM's Symphony brand push to its enterprise clients is now meeting with the same general "huh?" conclusion that greeted the big news a few weeks backs that Capgemini was going to partner with Google to push cheap productivity software into shops that can afford to have a relationship with Capgemini.


OpenOffice is a fine piece of software for most people's needs, but basic features are not the issue here, even the ephemeral virtue of "collaboration" hawked by Web-based tools such as Google Apps. Ask typical Office users in your shop if they know how to use the Reviewing Toolbar that's been available in Word for more than a decade. Shops that truly value collaboration have embraced basic technologies such as VPNs a long time ago and now are transitioning to investments in workspace tools that dwarf anything offered by would-be Office-killers.


I tend to agree that IBM's move to back OpenOffice is probably a low-cost effort to push the ODF format -- which everybody but Microsoft embraces -- as a strategic linchpin to undercut Office's dominance.


That may have the desired effect in a generation or so, if OpenOffice and other low-cost alternatives to Office take hold in the consumer space and a new wave of workers knows how to use those tools as they enter the workplace. (My nephew took an MS Office class in grade school -- talk about ubiquitous.) And of course, smaller businesses and entrepreneurs are always looking for cost-savings where they can find them.


But change is expensive in larger shops, even switches in productivity software that seem nominal to more technical types. Switching to an alternative to Office is just not worth the hassle unless it offers some real, new benefit.


The Office-killer will be a future generation of collaboration tools such as Clearspace or Traction that include that 20 percent or so of Office functionality that everybody uses as an add-on layer of value, not the main benefit. It will have a rich word processor, spreadsheets and slide-show software that users will employ to create collateral that gets uploaded into the shared workspace, along with tagging and relational sorting for keeping a handle on unstructured content. It will not just embrace, but enforce unified communications. It will be a knowledge-management system with the content-creation tools built right in.


And of course, it will export information in a format that every other knowledge worker in the world can use.


Obviously, this sounds like a next-gen Lotus Notes -- nobody is in as good a position to take on Office/Sharepoint in the enterprise as IBM. But compelling features, not nominal cost-savings, will be the change agent here. Microsoft will adopt common file types when competitors' products force it to.