I find myself recalling the early days of PC’s when the mantra of the day was mainframes and modems and you rented the software you used for your small business. The PC brought freedom from this model, in that once you bought the software you owned it, well at least in theory. The rapid change in hardware and software brought about a dilemma of how to get but fixes and updates. The Internet came along at just the right time and solved the whole delivery issue. No more having to call vendors like HP for drivers and then waiting for the disk to come in the mail, but that was the time when we rode a dinosaur to work. Now it seems Microsoft and others really don’t want to sell you software anymore they want to rent it to you.
I see this trend as going backwards right into the good old dark days for small companies. PC and now mobile devices give a small company great flexibility, but what happens if cash gets tight or the economy turns south, do you suddenly stop using your accounting system and creating documents, I don’t think so. Cash flow with rentals is great for software companies but it sucks for a struggling start-up. I understand the whole centralized maintenance advantage of the cloud, as we now call it, now with the added advantage of true collaboration. I get that we want to use our documents everywhere and on any devices and somehow that is being translated into a requirement to rent our software. There is an alternative, though not perfect, it can replace almost everything on the prosperity model and is free or nearly free.
Open source, the words Steve Balmer of Microsoft associates with communism but in reality is just another model for software distribution. Instead of requiring you to pay up front for the software, you pay for access to real time help and documentation, otherwise the software is free. Many Open Source projects have great online forums and community that can provide help but in a somewhat delayed manner, hey I said free didn’t I… I need the answer now, so that won’t work mentality is understandable but even paid help is getting slower or more difficult to use. I just see too many small companies unable to do some of the necessary day to day work without some sort of Office suite, upfront affordability is a big issue and often you see every machine has a different version of Microsoft Office or no Office software at all. Small companies are confused when a document created on one computer cannot be used on another or worse, a document modified on a second computer renders it unreadable on the machine that originally created the document. I know you can control this directly in Office by specifying the file type, but most people just don’t understand why it does not just work out of the box.
I have never understood why Microsoft chose to constantly change the default document types for each version of Office. I know that advances are made but why can’t an older Word 1997 document be opened in the new version with features that didn’t exist turned off and then saved back to the 97 format without a problem. The only thing I can think of is that Microsoft wants to force you to think you have to upgrade to make things work, and that is just want many people do. Most people just don’t understand enough about file formats to understand why one is not compatible with the other, they just want it too work. Standardization has been attempted through the OpenDocument Format but Microsoft only grudgingly supported the format and still defaults to their native proprietary formats (the default can be changed). There is also no standardized interface for all of the document types, of text, image, vector drawing, spreadsheet and database, etc, each one has a unique but similar interface. You cannot open a spreadsheet in Word and have it switch to Excel, instead it will try to open the file in Word as a jumbled mess.
There are a quite a few choices for Office suites but few can do as much as office can. One contender OpenOffice became the default choice for an Office replacement until Oracle obtained Open Office as part of their Sun acquisition. Oracle just didn’t know what to do with an open source product and tried to monetize it by offering help for a per seat charge. Fearful that development would languish under Oracle a critical group of developers left and created a fork called LibreOffice, and they proceeded to rapidly fix some of the short comings of OpenOffice. Oracle decided too late that it was not up to the open source challenge and gave the software to the Apache foundation (Most WEB servers use Apache software). The damage had been done though, many had defected to the more rapid development cycle LibreOffice offered. LibreOffice has also become the default Office application installed with most versions of the Linux operating system due to its more forgiving licensing requirements. LibreOffice is also working of adapting their application to the touch interface of tablets and mobile phones as well as providing version for both the iPhone and Android mobile market. Open Office, at this time, has no such development under way. The coming release of a touch interfaces and Android version sold me on switching to LibreOffice, at least they seem to realize that is where the market is going.
Even more impressive is LibreOffice’s ability to read old Visio files and create new ones readable by the latest Microsoft version, no good replacement for Visio existed until they did this. The last piece which I am sorry to say they don’t seem to be working on is a replacement for OneNote. I had chosen to use OneNote over it closest rival EverNote due to the ability to ‘Print’ documents directly from any application right into OneNote and the ability to create folders instead of having to tag everything. Perhaps they will see the light one day and remedy this but for now I will be creating some training documents using LibreOffice as I see this as the best application to serve the small business market I am focused on.
Last but not least is collaboration. Microsoft handles this on an Enterprise level through a SharePoint server or on a smaller scale through the use of Microsoft SkyDrive cloud storage and the Office Web Application for Office 365. LibreOffice on the other hand now integrates with Content Management Systems and online document storage via the CMIS standard. This allows you to access directly documents stored on ECM systems, such as open source projects like Alfresco, Nuxeo or proprietary, like Microsoft SharePoint. A growing office does not need to increase the number of seat licenses as one would have to do with Microsoft’s proprietary solution, instead a small company can control its cost while providing the document manage capability and security a true collaborative environment provides through Open Source. Renting seems like a dangerous dead end to me, so I will be steering my clients to solutions that can grow and if necessary shrink as they do…