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Office suites: Do you have a choice? (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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According to popular culture, we always have choices.

True enough. When a gun is pointed at your head, though, you should probably hand over your money: We may always have choices, but sometimes only one merits consideration.

Which brings us to the second in our two part series that asks the musical question, “Do you have to buy Microsoft’s products?” Last week’s column looked at operating systems and concluded that a typical CIO has two choices: Either use a mixture of Macintoshes and Windows systems — the Macs for general-purpose workstations and Windows for desktops running client/server business applications along with the standard word processor/spreadsheet/e-mail software — or simply standardize on Windows across the board.

This week we look at office suites. The contenders: Microsoft Office and Anything Else. (Astute IS Survivalists will conclude that this won’t be a detailed comparison of features-and-functionality.) The question isn’t whether Microsoft has a monopoly. In the case of office suites it clearly does not, since except for your perceptions and requirements (and probably a few hidden APIs that aren’t very important), Anything Else plays on a level field.

As we did with desktop operating systems, we’re looking at this architecturally. The question is, if you buy Anything Else, do you face technological inhibitors to business integration that can only be solved through unacceptably expensive or unreliable kluges. (“Kludge” has a lot of definitions. Here’s mine to add to your list: the paperclip attaching the bag to the box you already connected to the system with a Band-Aid.) In other words, it all boils down to file formats. We’ll look at word processors for this analysis; the same issues apply to spreadsheets.

If you don’t share files electronically you have complete freedom of choice. Use paper (and fax) as your medium of exchange and every employee can use a different word processor without causing any serious problems. Yes, I know how hard it would be to support. (The answer: Not Very.) There’s no significant impact on your architecture. You don’t need any standard, let alone making it Office.

If you share files only internally and not with your business partners, there’s no reason to choose one office suite over another except price. You won’t find all that much difference in functionality (unless you really like Mr. Paperclip). From a features and functionality perspective they’re all awesome.

So if you’re not using Office now, don’t waste your money converting. This is the perfect time to procrastinate, because a dollar tomorrow costs less than a dollar today.

What if you do exchange files with your business partners? Here’s the most basic rule in the systems integration book: Standard native data formats are better than neutral interchange formats, which in turn beat custom interfaces. Custom interfaces are sometimes, but not always, superior to manual re-keying. (They may cost more than the manual labor.)

For word processors, a standard native data format means both parties using the same file format, and today that means Microsoft Word. Rich Text Format, or RTF, is a neutral interchange format, which makes it second best even if it were perfect. If you’ve ever used it you know it isn’t — even automatic numbering fails to convert accurately. ASCII? Forget it — formatting matters.

So like it or not, if you’re e-mailing documents and spreadsheets to business partners in any volume, you only have one choice.

And Microsoft won this one in a fair fight, by betting on Windows when WordPerfect bet on OS/2 and Lotus bet on its lawyers.

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