Will Alternatives to Microsoft Become Mainstream?

Is the Microsoft monolith beginning to crumble? Alternative applications for everyday office tasks like word processing, e-mail, spreadsheets and presentations have been available for years, but their small size and limited resources relegated them to the sidelines.

Now, however, the software giant is facing challenges from champions of similar size.  “IBM and Google have begun to play together,” says Kyle McNabb, principal analyst at Forrester in Cambridge, Mass. “If they can work past their differences, then you have something credible and Microsoft should start shaking in its boots.”

Sneaking in the Back Door

IBM, Sun, Google, Yahoo and Thinkfree are the leading contenders jostling to gain a substantial foothold on Microsoft’s turf in the enterprise space. Although their potential is promising, at the moment, their plays are tenuous at best.

“We’ve talked to over 200 enterprises in the last 18 months and we’re seeing a lot of playing around with these alternatives — usually in IT groups and rogues throughout the enterprise that typically use them without corporate sanctions –but we’re not seeing very much actual adoption,” adds McNabb. “Where we are seeing adoption in enterprise, it’s usually of Sun’s StarOffice.”

Not everyone agrees with McNabb. Vaughan Woods, CEO of Maverick Asia Pte Ltd, a boutique consultancy out of Singapore, sees one solid reason, at least, to consider the contenders’ claims. “The reason enterprises look at these products is the high cost of Microsoft.”

A Different Lever

While cost is always a factor in any enterprise decision, it still isn’t providing the momentum for change one might expect. This forces the alternative applications to take a different approach to encourage wide scale adoption.

“Adoption happens outside of work,” says McNabb. “Google and Yahoo in particular are wooing home adopters, hoping to become so familiar and useful that employees will push the enterprise to adopt the programs as well. That strategy does have legs. After all, that’s exactly how Microsoft, particularly Windows, pushed its way into the enterprise.”

Microsoft did indeed slide in the back door to invade all of the enterprise space but that pervasiveness brought much-needed standardization as well. The threat of the chaos implicit in non-standardized applications has strengthened the ties to the Microsoft mother ship.

“If you review the process of convergence with the MS Office de facto standard in the 1980s, you will get a template for this process,” says David McNab, president of Objective Business Services, a boutique consulting firm based in Markham, Ontario. “Office productivity was only realized once we could share information across desktops and networks, and to do that we needed a standard which led to Microsoft’s dominance. The next step in evolution is that the Office standards become commoditized — e.g., open source alternatives abound — and that’s what you are starting to see now.”

Culture Dictates the Play

Some IT analysts believe the pace of change is governed more by culture than by business principles or cost concerns. They cite an intriguing disparity in alternative uptakes in various countries.

“For a while now, I’ve noticed that U.S. businesses are quite inflexible when it comes to adopting new technology. There seems to be a particular aversion to using this kind of third-party application for managing data,” says Paul C. Williams, senior software engineer at LexisNexis Examen in Sacramento, Calif.

Conversely, he adds, “Businesspeople in developing countries, particularly in India and China, but also in the Eastern Bloc, are quite open to using these new tools. I would expect that trend to continue with corporate adoption of Internet-based applications.”

His prediction: Managers in developing countries with large groups of people working collaboratively will tend to use the network-based tools, while the “rugged individualists” in the U.S. will continue to insist on stand-alone applications.

Which Will Switch?

The status quo will always have plenty of supporters, if not outright fans. “I don’t expect many businesses to switch to online alternatives in the near future — just because it is a switch to be made,” says Jan Doornaert, project manager at Radar Automation N.V. in Belgium. “Too many vested interests, or ‘it works just fine now, why change?’ mindsets take over.”

But at the end of the day, the needs of the global marketplace may override all other concerns.

“I suspect some changeovers may be financially motivated” says Williams. “But ultimately, due to the increasing need for document control and collaboration, some collaborative platform — be it Google Docs, Sharepoint or something all together different — will become adopted throughout businesses.”