Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Overview

Office 365 vs RS E-MailJust about a year ago, we were pretty excited as we signed up for Microsoft’s Office 365 service. A year later we have cancelled Microsoft’s service and switched to an Open-Xchange based e-mail service hosted by Rackspace. This post is the first in a series that examines in detail, our experience and thought process in signing up for and then moving off of Office 365.

Our Initial Needs

A year ago, we had a pretty good idea of our key requirements for an e-mail service.

Cloud-Based We definitely needed a cloud-based solution. We were starting our business in our kitchen and knew that even when we moved into regular office space, it would be a long time before we could afford a computer room, server computers, and the IT staff to take care of them
Web E-Mail Client We needed a run-anywhere, browser-based e-mail client. We knew that we would be hiring student interns and that these students would tend to arrive with their own laptop computers.
e-Mail Aliases We wanted to make efficient use of generic addresses like “” without paying for separate mail boxes or requiring someone to have to constantly check separate mail boxes.
Microsoft Office Support We also knew that the students would tend to have “academic” copies of Microsoft Office with problematic license restrictions. We needed to find an easy and cost-effective means of providing legal office document processing.

Additional Attractive Features

Microsoft’s Office 365 offering seemed to fit the bill. In addition to the basics listed above, it offered some additional attractive bundled features:

Microsoft Lync Microsoft’s instant messaging solution. I had worked for years at IBM and we had made extensive use of the Lotus Sametime product. With employees spread all over the world, Sametime was extremely useful. Microsoft Lync looked promising.
Microsoft SharePoint Likewise, I had made extensive use of Lotus teamrooms at IBM. SharePoint looked like an attractive feature as well.

A Year Later

So, how did these different aspects of the value proposition work out for us?

  1. Cloud-Based – Good. Office 365 is cloud-based.
  2. Web E-Mail Client – Disappointing. I have been pretty happy with the desktop version of Outlook. As such, I was disappointed to see just how clumsy and awkward the web version was.
  3. e-Mail Aliases – Clumsy. The interface to manage aliases is hard to work with. Exchange also translates the incoming address making it impossible to see who the original e-mail was addressed to.
  4. Microsoft Office Support – Problematic. The online tools were not up to real professional applications. The downloadable versions did not support Mac – even though Microsoft has a Mac version of Office.
  5. Microsoft Lync – Irrelevant. The Lync product did not work very well and even Microsoft is transitioning users to Skype.
  6. Microsoft SharePoint Р Irrelevant. The product was clumsy and hard to use.

The following posts I will discuss these topics in more detail and compare the Office 365 experience with the Open-Xchange experience.

Pricing and Customer Service Office 365 is quite a bit more expensive than the comparable Rackspace service.
Web E-Mail Client Office 365 uses too many popups and also has many frustrating and confusing features. The performance is also sluggish compared with the simpler, faster Open-Xchange client.
Instant Messaging and File Sharing Both Office 365 products were “heavy” implementations.
E-Mail Aliases The Open-Xchange implementation is much better.
Microsoft Office Support The web clients are still toys. The Office 365 download approach is problematic. Open Office is getting closer.


Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Pricing and Customer Service

(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)

Pricing – Office 365

Screen Capture of Office 365 New Customer Pricing as of 7 February 2013

Office 365 New Customer Pricing as of 7 February 2013

The screen capture at the left shows Microsoft’s Office 365 pricing for new accounts as of 7 February 2013. Click here for current pricing => Microsoft Office 365 Plans.

Screen Capture of Office 365 Pricing for Existing Customers as of 7 February 2013

Office 365 Pricing for Existing Customers as of 7 February 2013

Oh yes. Just a minute. If you are an existing Office 365 customer, Microsoft has special pricing for you if you purchase additional licenses from within Office 365. The screen capture below at the right shows the pricing for additional licenses as of 7 February 2013. (There is no direct link to this information since it is visible only to existing Office 365 customers.) We were enjoying the benefits of this enhanced loyalty pricing and paying $24/month each for 6 licenses of the E3 plan (rather than $20/month for new customers)  and $4/month for one bare bones K1 mailbox.

One more consideration is that Microsoft effectively charges you for an additional license from one of the plans to support the administrator console. Suppose you want to setup the e-mail for Here is how it works:

  1. Your name is Fred
  2. You have another e-mail address (which you will need to keep) which is
  3. You sign up for Office 365 and purchase 10 licenses of one of the plans.
  4. Microsoft sets up the domain
  5. Microsoft creates the admin user as and consumes one of the licenses for this user.
  6. Microsoft sends the login credentials for to
  7. Using the information in the welcome e-mail delivered to, you log in to
  8. adds the domain to the account and then sets up the mailboxes for

Thereafter, all administration actions have to be performed by the admin. The net effect is that only 9 of the original 10 licenses are available for real users.

Pricing – Rackspace

Screen Capture of Rackspace E-Mail Pricing as of 7 February 2013

Rackspace E-Mail Pricing as of 7 February 2013

The screen capture at the left shows the Rackspace e-mail pricing for new accounts as of 7 February 2013. Click here for current pricing => Rackspace E-Mail Plans.

The Open-Xchange-based plan is the one at the right for $2/month per mailbox. For our purposes, the functionality of Open-Xchange is actually better than the function of Microsoft Exchange. We are paying $2 per month for 7 mail boxes with an extra $1 per month to synch one of those mailboxes with an iPad. Unlike Office 365, the Rackspace/Open-Xchange plan does not require the creation of a separate admin mailbox.

Our total monthly spend dropped from $150 per month to $15 per month. However, the $150 per month also covered our licenses for Microsoft Office, so the comparison is not completely apples-to-apples. I discuss the problem of Microsoft Office support in more detail in Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Microsoft Office Support

Customer Service – Office 365

Microsoft has a lot of help available if you might be about to buy some new service. As for anything else? They really don’t want to hear from you.

Screen Capture of Ask a Question

Ask a Question

Microsoft’s first hope is that you will find solace in its knowledge base or its online community. Sometimes this approach works. Let’s take a look at a typical problem. Suppose you would like to export your contacts from Office 365 in comma-separated-value (CSV) format so that you can import them to something else (A smart phone, your personal wizard, whatever). There is not a built-in function for this (Office 365 assumes that migrations and information flow in one direction only and that is to Office 365). So, you get on the forum and ask a question as shown above at the right.

O365 - 21 - Get an Answer
Typically, there is a long stream of discussion of things that don’t actually work followed eventually by an answer like the one shown at the left. In other words, as long as you enjoy installing server administration tools and writing specialized scripts, they have you covered.

What if you don’t find what you need in the information that Microsoft has available online? Let’s just give them a call! Well, Microsoft does not make that easy. They keep all of their customer support numbers carefully hidden.

Screen capture of Submit a Service Request

Submit a Service Request

In order to open a help ticket, you need to login to the admin account and enter a service request as shown in the screen capture to the right. Once you select “new request” you will be guided through several screens to select various categories from various pull-down menus – which may or may not have anything to do with your real problem – after which you click “Submit”. In my experience, you may get a phone call or you may get an e-mail. The response time will vary from 2 to 24 hours. The e-mail may contain a long list of things for you to try followed by a sentence like this (copied from an actual e-mail):

After you have saved your data, please call us. Our customer support hours are 9 AM – 5 PM Monday through Friday. You’ll find the phone numbers and business hours for your location here: When you call it will save you time if you would please provide your Service Request number: 1195353807.

Screen Capture of Directory of Billing Help Numbers

Directory of Billing Help Numbers

Ah-Ha! We have been given access to the secret directory of call numbers…or at least some of them. (Note. In order to avoid complaints from Microsoft, I have altered the URL slightly to make the link inoperable). Once you click on the link, you will get a pop-up window with a scroll box that looks like the screen capture at the right. The first thing you notice is that Microsoft has carefully blocked copy and paste in this pop-up applet. They certainly wouldn’t want the help telephone numbers leaking out to the broader public!

Once you call the number, you will wait on hold for awhile without any indication of how long the likely wait is. Today I waited about ten minutes after which a very pleasant and competent woman in India took care of my problem.

Customer Service – Rackspace

Screen Capture Rackspace 24x7 Customer Support Is Not a Secret

Rackspace 24×7 Customer Support Is Not a Secret

Rackspace does not keep their customer support numbers a secret. To access the list shown in the screen capture to the right, click here.

I called them from Austin, Texas at 4PM CST today. The call was answered in 47 seconds by a cheerful young man who answered my question exactly in less than 10 seconds (It was an easy question). I was off the phone with my question answered in less than one minute.

One thing that was a little confusing about getting started with Rackspace is that they don’t provision you instantly. They have a nice green “Start Free 14-Day Trial” button on their website. Once you click it, it looks like everything should be setup, but actually Rackspace calls you back in person a few hours later to make sure you are a serious, real business and not some sort of pornography spam bot before they provision the free trial for you. I completely understand and agree with their policy, but they need to polish up the sign-up process a little to let new customers understand what is going on.


Performance of the product is definitely part of the value delivered. However, performance of a web-based product is a combination of several factors:

  1. Proximity – How close are you to the server? Obviously, if you are half-way around the world, service will be worse than if you are sitting right next to the server and connected over a gigabit LAN.
  2. Server Software Design – Is the server software a lean, mean, new implementation that is carefully designed to deliver exactly the service it is being asked to deliver? Or is the server software a conglomeration of “layers” that has accumulated over the decades, with many of the layers emulating legacy interfaces for ancient systems known only to archaeologists?
  3. Web-Client Design – Is the web-client tightly designed to operate with an economy of glued-on layers, pop-up boxes, and complicated back-and-forth interactions with the server?
  4. Provisioning – How generous is the hosting provider with the allocation of server hardware? Are they serving 10 users with an Intel Xeon E7-8800 blade provisioned with 512GB of memory? Or are they serving 10,000 users on an old Pentium 3 box with 512MB of memory? Provisioning is a straight cost versus commitment to quality tradeoff.

On the proximity question, we almost certainly don’t have a fair comparison here. I am in Austin and Rackspace is most likely to be serving me from data centers either in San Antonio or Dallas. Microsoft is probably serving me from a data center in the Pacific Northwest somewhere. That having been said, my Rackspace service is lightning-fast and the Office 365 service is really sluggish, especially the administrator functions.

Screen Capture of Office 365 Admin Group Editor Completely Fails to Load on 4 February 2013

Office 365 Admin Group Editor Completely Fails to Load on 4 February 2013

Microsoft’s implementation uses lots of popups and/or things that need to download and initialize every time you use them. Sometimes, they simply fail to initialize completely. Earlier this week (4 February 2013) I was trying to access the group editor from the Office 365 administration console and it completely failed to load – even using Internet Explorer 9. Regrettably, this sort of phenomenon is not unusual. Going through the Submit-Service-Request/E-Mail-from-India/Call-India-Back cycle would have been pointless. By the time I got the helpdesk in India on the phone, the problem would be gone. Indeed, it was gone the next day.


Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Web E-Mail Client

(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)

Office 365 Client

I have used Microsoft Outlook on the desktop for about 15 years for my personal POP-based e-mail accounts and have generally been quite happy with it. As such, I had high hopes for Office 365. Get the same function as Outlook in a web browser? It sounded promising.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The Office 365 e-mail client is definitely not Office reimplemented in a browser. Rather than simply moan, however, let’s cover three specific points that I can give side-by-side comparisons for.

Threaded Conversation View

Confusing Conversation View

Confusing Conversation View

Somewhere in the lab that invented Mr. Clippy for Microsoft Office about 20 years ago, a brilliant idea emerged that e-mails should be grouped as threaded conversations. To be fair, the idea may have some merit. Unfortunately, its implementation in the Office 365 mail client is confusing. E-mails disappear. You can’t see what came in which sequence.

Of course, you can turn the threaded view off. However, Microsoft is so sure that the threaded view is good for you, that they don’t let you turn it totally off. You have to turn it off for each folder, one folder at a time.

Junk Mail Folder

Junk Mail Folder Easy to Overlook

Junk Mail Folder Easy to Overlook

Can you spot the junk mail folder in the image at the right? I wasn’t able to either. Unlike most e-mail clients, rather than placing the junk mail folder at the top of the display, Office 365 sorts “Junk Mail” into the alphabetical list of your personal folders. In this position it is easy to overlook. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Office 365 junk mail filter isn’t very good and generates a rather high percentage of false positives. I missed quite a few important messages before I figured out what was going on here.


The handling of e-mail and other contacts is the most infuriating aspect of Office 365. The poor design is especially appalling given the excellent design of Office on the desktop.

UI Won't Let You Copy E-Mail Address

UI Won’t Let You Copy E-Mail Address

If you want to open an e-mail, mark an e-mail address, and copy the address to the clipboard, the UI actively fights you. Microsoft has decided that it is against the rules for you to simply copy an e-mail address to the clipboard and do something with it. Once you have selected an e-mail address and right click you are NOT allowed to copy it. You are required to create a contact for it.

Add to Contacts Triggers Pop-Up Blocker

Add to Contacts Triggers Pop-Up Blocker

OK, I give up. I will create a contact for it. (Even though what I wanted to do with the e-mail address had nothing to do with creating a contact for it) Opps! The Office 365 add-to-contact function is specially designed to trigger popup blockers in every browser known to man. In fact, the excessive use of popups is a common thread throughout the Office 365 experience.

Add to Contacts too Stupid to Guess Name

Add to Contacts Can’t Guess Name

Once you do decide to make a contact, the implementation is really primitive. It isn’t smart enough to guess anything. Even if the person’s name is right in front of the e-mail address, the Office 365 function won’t guess the name. Instead you will have to type it in from scratch.

Rackspace/Open-Xchange Client

So, how does the Rackspace E-Mail client compare?

Threaded Conversation View

Open-Xchange - Compact, Responsive, E-Mail Interface

Open-Xchange – Compact, Responsive, E-Mail Interface

the Rackspace e-mail service is based on Open-Xchange technology. The browser client is compact, efficient, fast and intuitive. There is no threaded view. Traditional. No unnecessary distractions. It just works like you expect an e-mail client to work.

Junk Mail Folder

As you can see from the figure above, the spam folder is at the top of the explorer where you would expect it to be. Also, the key system folders (Inbox, Drafts, Sent, Spam, Trash) are subtly separated from your personal folders making them easy to find.


Open-Xchange - Contacts Easier to Add

Open-Xchange – Contacts Easier to Add

Contacts are easier to add in the Open-Xchange client. The contact form does correctly guess the person’s name. The UI does not fight you and prevent you from copying and pasting e-mail addresses.

Although the contacts implementation in Open-Xchange is better than the implementation in Office 365, it is still not everything I would wish for. What I want is something like this:

  1. Multiple Folders – I want to have my own personal contact folders as well as folders shared with different sets of people. For example, I would like to have a family folder, a department folder, and a company wide folder.
  2. Nested Folders – I want to be able to either have multiple personal folders or nested folders so I can organize a lot of contacts. That is, I would be happy to have say 10 personal folders with different names and 4 folders shared with different sets of people.
  3. High Function Editor – In terms of editing, I like the contact editor in Microsoft Outlook for the desktop. I want to be able to easily set pictures for contacts. I also want to be able to use rich text in the notes field. I use the notes field to keep track of all kinds of things I know about that contact. I want to be able to put lists, set fonts, make certain items bold, etc..
  4. Download to My Mobile Devices – I want all of the contacts to download to all of my mobile devices. I want ALL the contacts to download (including the shared contacts). I want ALL the information in each contact to download including images and rich text, and I want the folder structure to be retained on my mobile device.
  5. XML Export and Import – I want all of the contact information to import or export in some well-defined and open format. I would like the images and RTF note information to extract to well-defined individual file names and have the entire thing tied together in an XML structure so that other software can interact with it.
  6. Nickname Field – I want an additional “nickname” field that can be either used for Western nicknames or to show Chinese characters for Asian names or whatever. Right now, I end up using the job description field, an imperfect solution.
  7. Free or Low-Cost Central Archival Service – I would like some sort of central archival service that doesn’t cost $50/month which all the different e-mail services, mobile devices, and so on can synchronize to. I would be willing to pay $2/month.

At any rate, even with mobile synch (an extra $1/month per mailbox) the Rackspace E-mail does not meet this level of requirements. Rackspace does offer a more expensive Exchange hosting service, but that would put me back into a lot of things I don’t like about Office 365.


Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Instant Messaging and File Sharing

(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)

Instant Messaging

E-mail from Microsoft: Microsoft Gives Up on Messenger

Microsoft Gives Up on Messenger

Coming from a background of working at IBM and using the Lotus Sametime software intensively, Microsoft Lync looked promising. We would be able to ask quick questions of one another (a common practice at IBM) and see who was working when.

The first thing we noticed was that it was pretty hard to setup and get working. You had to download and install it. You had to configure it. You had to manually find people to link to.

Due to the bolted-together-from-several-different-pieces nature of Office 365, we never really were able to get the pictures of people to work fully between Lync, Contacts and E-Mail in Office 365. Spending a few hours on the phone with Microsoft’s helpdesk in India was not something we looked forward to. We eventually gave up on getting the pictures working.

It is not that Lync is a terrible product. It would have been pretty exciting in the late 1990s. The problem is that Lync simply comes up short against the “It just works!” standard of current products such as Dropbox or Skype.

Microsoft now owns Skype and has obviously come to the same conclusion. I received the e-mail shown above and to the right a few weeks ago, outlining Microsoft’s plan to transition users to Skype.

Actually, for Asatte Press, the biggest problem turned out to have nothing to do with Microsoft’s product: We simply don’t need the instant messaging service much. Our employees work at our office and our office is tiny. When our employees are off the clock, they are off the clock. Our small business was not able to get much value out of instant messaging. Period.

File Sharing

Office 365 comes with Microsoft’s Sharepoint product. Like the instant messaging product, this would have been a very exciting product in the 1990s, but it has been passed by newer products in the marketplace.

Image of Teamsite showing No Way to get to Home from Team Site

No Way to get to Home from Team Site

To use Sharepoint, you had two choices:

  1. Web Client – We found the web client sluggish and hard to use. Multiple file upload worked only on Internet Explorer and then only on days when the stars were properly aligned. In a symptom of the bolted-together nature of Office 365, once you clicked on “Team Site” to access Sharepoint, there was no way to get back to your home page.
  2. Local Install – Microsoft also provide a local client for Windows. This client worked well, once setup and configured. However, it complains a lot about needing authentication (even when it is not running). This was again, a fairly heavyweight piece of software in terms of installation and configuration.

Our solution ended up looking like this:

  1. Subversion – Since we do a lot of software development, we spun up a Linux server image at a hosting provider and installed a copy of the open source source code control system called Subversion. For our technical users and for business critical files, Subversion provides version tracking, branching, merging and integration with trouble ticket systems (we use Mantis). However, subversion is a little tough for our non-technical users (but so was Sharepoint).
  2. Dropbox – For casual file sharing and non-technical users, we simply let people move things around with Dropbox. Dropbox is a wonderful example of excellent software development execution by a team dedicated to “It just works”

With Subversion, Mantis, and Dropbox in place, we really don’t have a need for Sharepoint.


Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – e-Mail Aliases

(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)

Our e-Mail Alias Needs

Here at Asatte Press, we use e-mail aliases heavily. We buy almost everything we use on the web. As such, we have more than 100 different companies for which we have registered online profiles. Each of these profiles demands to have an e-mail address for status notifications, invoicing, upgrade announcements, and so on. Now, say I have an employee Fred who is setting up a new project for the company and needs to sign up for four new online services in the process. Do I want to have Fred register his personal company e-mail address as the contact address for the company? What if Fred leaves? What a nightmare.

In order to work around this common problem, we use e-mail aliases. Instead of having Fred use his own Asatte Press e-mail address, for registering a profile with the company XYZ, we create an “alias” like and point this alias to That way, when Fred leaves and is replaced by Sally, we can simply redirect the e-mail alias to Sally’s e-mail address.

Our requirements are:

  1. Unlimited number of aliases
  2. Central table of aliases for easy maintenance

The first requirement eliminated Google Docs from consideration. They can only support 30 aliases per ID. Office 365 does meet the first requirement, but not the second. Rackspace E-Mail meets both requirements and adds three bonus features:

  1. A single alias can be pointed to more than one e-mail address.
  2. The target e-mail addresses can be external to the system.
  3. Aliases can be exported to and imported from spreadsheets in bulk

Office 365 e-Mail Aliases

So, it is the middle of the day. You have your normal e-mail open, and you are filling out a web form. You suddenly realize that you need a new e-mail alias for IJK corp. What do you have to do as an Office 365 administrator? Let’s walk through the procedure.

1 – Log Into Admin Account

Screen Capture Log Into the Separate Admin Account

Log Into the Separate Admin Account

The first step is to log into the separate “onmicrosoft” administrator account. In order to avoid confusion, I bookmarked the administrator account in Internet Explorer (which tends to pop up the yellow warning box) and use my personal e-mail account from Firefox. While we were using it, Office 365 blocked the browser from remembering your password, so you had to remember and retype your annoying secure password every time.

2 – Wait for Admin Screen to Load

Screen Caputre of Wait for Admin Account to Load

Wait for Admin Account to Load

Next, you have to wait for the admin account to load and initialize, typically around 30 seconds.

3 – Bring Up “Manage Exchange” Screen

After the admin account loads, you click the blue “Manage” link under “Exchange”

Wait Another 30 sec for Manage Exchange  to Load

Wait Another 30 sec for Manage Exchange to Load

You wait for the “Manage Exchange” element to load, usually another 30 seconds. On some days, this component may never load at all. On normal days, it is apparent that it had to sequentially add quite a few different elements. You will see the screen slowly filling in, one element at a time.

4 – Select a User

Screen Aacpture of Wait 15 sec for User Details to Load

Wait 15 sec for User Details to Load

The next step is to select a specific user. This point is a problematic design. Aliases are assigned to specific users rather than the other way around. In any event, you wait another 15 seconds for the user information to load. Again, some days it never loads at all.

5 – Scroll Down to E-Mail Options

Screen Capture of Expand E-Mail Options

Expand E-Mail Options

The section of the dialog box you need is buried at the bottom. You will need to scroll down to find it. The section is called “E-Mail Options” for some reason even though what it actually does is control e-mail aliases.

7 – Scroll Both Outer and Inner Windows

Scoll Inner and Outer Window to Display Alias List

Scoll Inner and Outer Window to Display Alias List

You may want to check to see if you have already assigned the alias (and simply forgotten it). You may also have more than five aliases assigned to this user already. In this case, you will have to use both outer and inner scroll bars to scroll the small display up and down to check the alphabetically sorted list of aliases.

8 – Assign the Alias

Screen Acpture of Add the Alias

Add the Alias

Success! You are now ready to assign the actual alias! Don’t forget to properly distinguish between the “” domain that Microsoft creates for initial registration and your actual company domain. Obviously, you will now need to back out of several layers of nested menus by clicking “OK”

Rackspace/Open-Xchange e-Mail Aliases

The Rackspace E-Mail procedure is much quicker.

1 – Log Into Control Panel

Log into Control Panel

Log into Control Panel

Unlike Office 365, the Rackspace e-mail system does not create a separate domain or a separate admin account. Instead, the Rackspace E-Mail system has a control panel. Since the access to the control panel is a different URL, you can maintain two bookmarks in a single browser: one for e-mail and one for the control panel. I find this arrangement much more convenient. No need to log out of the e-mail system or open a different browser.

Unlike the Office 365 login, the Rackspace e-mail control panel does not suppress the browser’s ability to remember your password. Login takes less than 4 seconds from Austin. It might take longer from some other geographic location.

2 – Select Manage Aliases

Select "Manage Aliases"

Select “Manage Aliases”

The second entry in the top box of the control panel is “manage aliases”. Click on that link.

3 – Alias List Screen

Alias List Ready in 3 Seconds

Alias List Ready in 3 Seconds

The alias list will come up within 3 seconds. From this screen we can either add a single alias using a menu, or upload multiple aliases in bulk from a spreadsheet. There is also a control at the bottom of the screen to export all the aliases to a spreadsheet.

4 – Add an Alias

Add Alias Members

Add Alias Members

Here we can see how adding an alias works. You can select multiple members from your domain and click “Add” to add them. You can also add up to four external aliases.


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.


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.