Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Microsoft Office Support

(This post is part of a series comparing our experiences with Microsoft Office 365 and Open-Xchange e-mail hosted by Rackspace. Click here for the overview)

The one remaining aspect of comparing Office 365 to Rackspace E-Mail is support for office productivity applications: Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and Presentations. Bundled Microsoft Office support is part of the value proposition for Office 365 and it isn’t for Rackspace E-mail. Moving to Rackspace E-mail leaves the office productivity app question unsolved. Unfortunately, there is no really good answer.

Office 365 Web Apps

If you look carefully at the different Office 365 plans, the “Small Business” and “Midsize Business” plans offer something called: “Office Web Apps” as well as “Office Mobile Apps”. These are new apps (probably written in Java) that run directly in your browser. Files are stored in Microsoft’s cloud, although it is possible to upload and download files to/from your local hard drive. These apps are nice enough, but they simply are not compatible with the full range of stuff in existing documents. That is, if your staff only use the Word component to write single page memos with no headers, trailers, or formatting these apps may be adequate. However, these apps simply can’t handle existing complex documents with embedded spreadsheets, fancy formatting, cross references and so on.

For our purposes, Office Web Apps are not a solution. We did not evaluate the Office Mobile Apps.

Office Professional/Subscription

At the enterprise level, Office 365 offers “Office Subscription”. This service is basically the option to download a slightly modified version of Microsoft Office and install it on up to five devices. The modified version “calls home” periodically to see if you are still paying for the service. To be fair, this approach worked fairly well, but there were a few limitations:

  1. The initial download was in excess of 600 megabytes. There was a way to download it once, make a CD-ROM and then run install from the CD-ROM on multiple machines. We did so.
  2. You also had to install a special online sign-in assistant to handle the “call home” part. This piece of software was a bit quirky, idiosyncratic, and hard to get working in some cases. However, once installed and debugged, it worked fine.
  3. Even though Microsoft has a version of Office for the Mac, they don’t provide this downloadable support for the Mac. This limitation left us in the position of paying double for our Mac users, about half of our employees.

Microsoft Office Site Licensing

For companies our size, there is basically no discount at all for a site license of Microsoft Office. It is really expensive – hundreds of dollars per seat.

Google Docs

Our cursory testing of Google Docs revealed a product similar to Microsoft Web Apps: fine for very simple documents, not fine for realistic, full-complexity business documents.

Apache Open Office

Apache Open Office is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office. The product started in Germany as Star Office in the 1980s. I have been watching it myself for almost 20 years, coming back to it to take a look every 5 years or so. All my previous experiences were pretty disappointing. The impression was similar to Google Docs and the Office Web Apps: nice toy for simple tasks, but not ready for prime time.

The latest version is a different story. The apps are now very powerful, polished, easy-to-use, and highly compatible with Microsoft Office.

The compatibility story is interesting. As of Office 2007, Microsoft changed from a binary file format to a format (DOCX) which is actually a zipped XML file. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry worked on an open zipped XML format (ODT) Although the formats are very similar, Microsoft apparently refused to participate in the industry open standard effort. The net result today is that Microsoft uses Microsoft’s proprietary zipped XML format and OpenOffice uses the open standard zipped XML format. Interestingly:

  1. Microsoft Office will save files as either DOCX or ODT.
  2. Apache Open Office will save files only as ODT (no DOCX option)
  3. Microsoft Office will open a ODT file created by Open Office but may complain about “corruption” – even though the file is only a single line of 5 words.
  4. Apache Open Office will open either the DOCX created by Microsoft Office or the ODT created by Microsoft Office without complaint.

In addition to file formats, there is the question of whether complex formatting features move back and forth gracefully. For the word processing components, the level of interoperability is now impressive. There may still be quirks here and there, but there are sometimes quirks when files are moved between different versions of Microsoft Office.

The presentation element of Open Office is also very robust. It seems to be as powerful as PowerPoint and in some ways easier to use. Interoperability seems to be very good.

The only disappointment so far was the spreadsheet element of Open Office. Again, it looked very polished, and seemed to be very powerful, but it crashed a few minutes into my first attempt to use it. Software crashes are a non-starter for me. My reaction is similar to that of getting food poisoning at a restaurant; no amount of persuasion will get me into the restaurant a second time.

Conclusion

Our medium term direction will be to migrate off of Microsoft Office completely and switch entirely to Open Office. For our Mac users, we have already transitioned. For the most part, our work output is PDF files and Open Office is very good at producing PDF files. The one remaining question will be how often we get into a situation in which we need to collaborate in editing a Microsoft Office file with another company.

To this end, the Open Office community could finally seal the deal with me by providing more explicit support for Microsoft’s zipped XML formats.

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