SaaS: Thinkfree Office 3

Depending on the situation I love or hate moving. Some times moving provides me with an opportunity to get rid of the barnacles, re-organize and refocus on a new surrounding and set of tasks. There are often compelling ROI arguments to make the move to a new place, new job or new software. Other times I leave “just good enough” alone and let my reluctance to retool hold sway – I have enough retraining and learning tasks on my plate, no need to add another.

And a majority of Keep an Open Eye readers would seem to fall in the latter, just-good-enough category too. Because either by edict or by choice about 72 percent of Keep an Open Eye readers still use Microsofts Internet Explorer despite it having the worst security record of all browsers over the past 5 years, being the foundation for Microsofts coercive Web standards stall and simply also being the worst browser for features over the past 2-3 years. And this reluctance continues even when the better browsers, both Firefox and Opera, take less time to download and install by half than apllying the latest IE fixes. Talk about reluctance to move.

Literally Move from Microsoft Office

So you can understand my skepticism when eWeek labs did a review of ThinkFree Office as a SaaS replacement for Microsoft Office in its January 16th 2006 isue. Been there, done that. If IE – a clear loser, is clung to by most users, what is the chance of Thinkfree dislodging Office loyalists? Consider the obstacles:
a)Microsoft has been working triple overtime to beef up Office with free templates and other giveaways;
b)rightfully Office has features and 3rd party add-ons that are unique and distinctive to it that ThinkFree will be hard pressed to match (think VBA automation, Smart Squiggles, etc);
c)OpenOffice, which by version 2 is really quite good (think new Base for database plus constantly improved and unique Draw capabilities) and has better read+write to all Microsoft Office file formats than Office itself – Open Office has failed to capture significant market share from MS Office.

So what is going to make SaaS offering ThinkFree Office any different ?

Well for one ThinkFree is not free – it costs $5000 for five license and $50/seat thereafter. Second, ThinkFree has only three of the Office Suite components: Write for Word Processing, Calc for Spreadsheets, and Show for Presentation. Third, Thinkfree Office 3 does not support any Microsoft macro or VBA scripts. But on the plus side, Thinkfree was attractive to users because it runs through a browser on any desktop (Linux, Mac, Windows, Unix flavors, etc). Also users found Thinkfrees programs attractive because they were simple and easy to use. management really liked the server based approach – it promised to save a lot of time in administration of users workstations.

But Thinkfree did not fare as well as Open Office on its abaility to read and write all versions of Microsoft Office files. The new 2.0 version of Open Office has really improved in that regard. So it appears the customer will adopt the 80-20 rule – 80% of users will use Open Office/Thinkfree; the 20% of power applications will migrate to Microsoft Office 2003.

Indirection

Now all this seems pretty parochial. However, I mention this case because it shows what are the factors that are important to both users and operational staff in considering a move from Microsoft Office. Clearly, Microsoft Office Live, Redmonds any browser, server based version of the Office components will be offering those same benefits: similar central server and simplified use as advantages to customers. So Microsoft will have both desktop and server-side versions to protect its huge $10B++ cash cow that is Office.

But even more interesting is the case of two smaller shops (20-30 users). These shops resisted moving away from Office so management backed off. However, in one case the users were all on Google mail and when Google Calendar came through users could and did quickly migrate off Offices Outlook completely. Then when Open Office Base came through the last reason for not switching to Open Office fell by the wayside. The second group uses Mambo, the open Source Content Management System. When SaaS offering Writely came along, users also lost their last reason to stick with Microsft Office. The company is retiring their Office letting users take copies home for use their if they want. Not many takers so far.

Now this displacement of Office by Indirection is informative. First, it appears SaaS with its server-side operational benefits has a lot of adherents in shops large and small. Second, Microsoft Office even with simplified menus, has become too sprawling – so well designed Kiss also has an opportunity (but Microsoft Office Live may protect the backside). But offline operation and failure to read complex file formats still remain as major problems for Office competitors to address along with macros and scripting. Its no wonde that Redmond is working triple overtime to make and giveaway for Office 2003 free macros and VBA scripts with the ability interoperate with all of Microsofts key applications and services. And finally, it is no surprise that Microsoft wants to control the universal XML Office format to the exclusion of the industry adopted Oasis standard.

So look for the battle to be engaged – with Google buying Writely for its SaaS word processor, IBM solidifying its Office Workplace, and Open Office getting continued Sun and Open Source development it will be a battle royal with Microsoft being the highest cost producer – such a turn of events. This writer has already made the move to Open Office. But somehow, it appears that Googles Indirection, the slow displacement of Office components such that shops can switch to SaaS or Open Source with minimum disruption might be more effective in gaining market share as any imlied cost advantages.

(c)JBSurveyer 2006