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Do Office and OpenOffice Matter?

Perusing Bob Sutor’s links, I ran across this story on Novell and Open Office. While there’s some backstory that I don’t have time to cover here regarding the ODF format and Novell’s support (or lackthereof) for it, the focus here is on the tool as opposed to the standard. Specifically, the OpenOffice.org codebase.

Knowledgeable observers may differ with some of the contentions in the article and video (such as the characterization of Hula), but Novell’s CEO Hovsepian clearly sees great economic importance in the office suite, saying “The financial holy grail is actually the office productivity suite … when you look at structures of companies there is a lot of profitability in those product sets from the competition.” For one company, at least, that’s true. And perhaps it is for Novell, as well, given their recent Peugot win. Certainly I think there are problems with that statement, Sun’s lack of a financial success from StarOffice being exhibit A – although that’s potentially as attributable to strategic errors as it is to lack of market opportunity. The lack of economic importance for OpenOffice relative to Office, however, is not the sole measure of its value; the product can have value if only as a disruptive tactic (think Linux v Windows). It could be said, then, that its value is inherently dependent on the value of its competitor.

It should be self-evident to just about everyone on the planet that Office matters from an economic perspective; much of the strife and conflict around ODF can indeed be traced there. Novell, meanwhile, is ascribing significant economic importance to its closest functional competitor, OpenOffice.org. As are a number of other commercial parties, many of whom have conflicting visions of how that importance is or should be realized. The answer to the opening question, then, at least from the vendors with the largest investments in the market, is absolutely clear. Office and OpenOffice matter. Big time.

And frankly, the question itself is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Of course the suites matter. Entire generations of office workers have spent unfortunately sizable portions of their careers within the confines of one or more of the various tools. That fact, coupled with the economic or strategic importance outlined above, would seem to answer the question quite definitively.

But what about those without significant investments in the rich client office suite market? Much has been made in recent weeks and months of the lessons the enterprise is learning from the Web. From IBM’s new Connections offering to Suite Two, even stodgy IT buyers are becoming increasingly open minded about web applications. From CRM to email to ERP to portals to systems management, what was once rich client is now increasingly web. Why should content authoring be any different?

There’s no shortage of would be candidates for the title of Office for the Web, to be sure, with everyone from Google to Zoho in on the opportunity. Even the king of rich client Office suites itself, Microsoft, is tiptoeing around the edges of the market (how effectively is an exercise left to the reader).

If we can agree that the trend towards web applications is non-anomalous with respect to enterprise adoption and consumption, even if it’s not the binary either/or proposition many make it out to be, isn’t it logical to assume that at some point a significant portion of authoring tasks will make their way online? Forget the barriers to entry of price, platform compatibility, and so on – just think about how the new applications mirror the changing nature of office tasks. In the conversations that I have, it seems clear that the majority of traditional users are authoring greater volumes of shorter – think email – content than the traditional long form memos, reports, or updates. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it seems to support the idea that our authoring needs are not what they once were. Which in turn bolsters the notion that online authoring environments, which clearly suffer in functional comparisons to their client-side counterparts, may in fact be good enough for a high and growing percentage of use cases.

If that’s true, it may be useful to come back to the question: does Office, or OpenOffice matter? The answer as I see it depends entirely on the timeframe being discussed. In the short term, the answer is clearly yes. While I typically dislike longer term forcecasting, necessarily imprecise as the exercise happens to be, even in the distant future I don’t believe that the answer is that either is “dead.” Depending, of course, on what one considers dead.

I’m increasingly skeptical, however, that either Office or OpenOffice will matter in the way that they do now, or that their importance is somehow eternally provided for. In simple terms, I think the product category has peaked, that what we’re witnessing is the zenith of the Office productivity software market. They’ll continue to sell from here on out, but it’s going to be mostly downhill from here.

If you’re in agreement with that – and many will not be – the logical follow up question is obvious: what does matter if the code does not? And the answer to that is probably equally obvious: the format the content is stored in. But more on that later.

Disclaimer: IBM, Microsoft and Sun are RedMonk clients, Google, Novell, and Zoho are not.

Categories: Software-as-a-Service.

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  • Christopher Mahan

    > Do Office and OpenOffice Matter?

    I didn’t read anything else in the article, and that’s a comment in itself.

    What I realized however is that so far this year I have used Open Office zero times and Office (Word) only one time, and only because I have a blank document set to landscape printing with .5 margins and 11×17 paper set up in the printer select thingy. I used it to print a diagram (in png, generated by Grafviz’s dot on Debian Sarge).

    Ok, now I’ll read the article :)

  • http://ianskerret.wordpress.com Ian Skerrett

    Maybe not surprisingly I disagree with the notion of content creation via a web browser. I live in Outlook and Word. I curse everytime I have to use WordPress to write my blog and I know WordPress is probably the best blogging platform out there.

    No doubt the web technology will improve but it has a long way to go but I am sure the desktop software will innovate in parallel.

  • sogrady

    Christopher: your experience is much like mine. i do less and less writing in OO.o every month, and i’m in regular Office even less. even granting that i’m an outlier in statistical terms, i can’t think my experience is irrelevant either.

    Ian: on the latter point, we can certainly agree. i don’t think Office software is dead, nor do i anticipate that it will – or should – stop innovating. it can, and will. i’ve argued elsewhere about the need for a better writing client.

    my contention is rather that the suites themselves are likely to get less important, rather than more, over time. think of how much of the traditional office workload is now taking place in email, or IM, or on wikis. we just spend less time in Office suites than we used to, and i think that trend will if anything pick up speed. particularly as the clients get better.

    a couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a web based email or CRM client would be usable for most needs. these days? not so farfetched.

  • http://www.anova.org/software/ Zaine Ridling

    I think Stephen’s hit the mark here. I wrote about the growing importance of format over application in Part 1 of a review of word processors for DonationCoder.com at:

    http://www.donationcoder.com/Reviews/Archive/WordProcs/

    One evident lure of ODF and StarOffice/OpenOffice for governments is not just their cost comparison to MSOffice, but the more simplified feature sets of StarOffice/OpenOffice and yes, notably Zoho, ThinkFree, and Google Docs. Most governments don’t need the complexity — not to mention the cost and training time — of Office 2007. They know their workers only use a small subset of the total features. Word 2007 has evolved into a desktop publishing program, it seems.

    Programs like Outlook, Gmail, and IM clients are used far more often than the word processor. The word processor will never go away, but its centrality to the office has clearly shifted to tools that offer more immediate means for communication and feedback.

  • http://www.monkchips.com James Governor

    this also has some of the rich app/poor app pattern about it. I mean Rich Text Editor… wtf – its text ;-)

    my traffic here via anne.

    one thing sog- for some reason this never remembers my details? weird

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