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. The PC brought freedom from this model, 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 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 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’s and mobile devices give a small company great flexibility. What happens if cash gets tight or the economy turns south, do you stop using your accounting system and creating documents. Cash flow with rentals is great for software companies but it sucks for a struggling start-up. The centralized maintenance advantage of the cloud and the advantage of true collaboration, is a powerful argument for the cloud. I get that we want to use our documents everywhere and on any devices and somehow that become a requirement to rent 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, what Microsoft’s Steve Balmer associates with communism, 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 see too many small companies unable to do day to day work without some sort of Office suite, upfront affordability is a big issue. Often you see every machine has a different version of Microsoft Office or no Office software at all. Confusion reigns when Small companies create a document on one computer that does not open on another. Worse, a document modified on a second computer renders it unreadable on the machine that created the document. I know you can control this in Office by specifying the file type, but most people don’t understand why it does not work out of the box.
I have never understood why Microsoft chose to change the default document types for each version of Office. Why can’t an older Word 1997 document work in the new version, with features that didn’t exist turned off, and then saved in 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 what many people do. Most people don’t understand enough about file formats to understand why one is not compatible with the other, they just want it too work.
The OpenDocument Format attempts standardization but Microsoft only grudgingly supported the format. Office still defaults to their native proprietary formats. There is also no standardized interface for text, spreadsheet or databases. 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. OpenOffice became the default choice for an Office replacement until Oracle obtained Open Office. Oracle 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. 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. Many defected to the more rapid development cycle LibreOffice offered. LibreOffice has also become the default Office application installed with most versions of Linux. LibreOffice is also working of adapting their application to the touch interface of tablets and mobile phones. Open Office, at this time, has no such development under way. The coming release of a touch interfaces 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 files 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 EverNote due to the ability to ‘Print’ documents from any application right into OneNote. The ability to create folders instead of having to tag everything, is another advantage. One day they will see the light and hopefully remedy these shortcomings.
Last but not least is collaboration. Microsoft handles this on an Enterprise level through a SharePoint server. On a smaller scale they use of Microsoft SkyDrive cloud storage and the Office Web Application for Office 365. LibreOffice now integrates with Content Management Systems and online document storage via the CMIS standard. The CMIS standard allows you to access documents stored on ECM systems, such as open source projects like Alfresco, Nuxeo or proprietary ones, 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. Open Source provides a small company control of its cost while providing security and the document manage capability a true collaborative environment provides. 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…