Sherri McLeish from Forrester reports that 80 percent of enterprise customers still use Microsoft Office. While this is down significantly from the 95 percent reported in this 2006 BusinessWeek article, it still makes me wonder why so many companies would continue to use Microsoft Office given the current economy and the number of lower-cost or free alternatives.

Did Office 2007 Change Things?

For years Office used the menu/toolbar, metaphor that so many of us have grown up using. There's nothing wrong with change per se, but when Microsoft moved to the ribbon metaphor a couple of years ago, they changed the way people interact with the software completely (as I wrote in Office 2007 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back in my by Ron Miller blog). That meant the new version required companies to train their users to find the things they had previously understood instinctively.

That could account for why Microsoft lost 15 percent in market share between 2006 and 2009 (if you trust these numbers; but for the sake of argument, let's say they're accurate). Companies might have decided 'if we're investing in an entirely new approach and we have to train our users anyway, why don't we look at some alternatives.' I don't know for sure that's what happened, but it would make sense.

Viable Alternatives

Even before the release of Office 2007, there were numerous options such as Google Docs and Zoho to name just a couple of online alternatives and OpenOffice, the open source office suite, for those who would rather keep their office productivity suite inside the firewall (as I wrote about in OpenOffice 3 Available: Time to be Open Minded About Open Source). Google has a low-cost enterprise version of Docs available and Zoho is a full-blown, low-cost suite of business tools. OpenOffice offers all of the tools you most need in your office suite: word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program, for nothing (that's zero, zippo, zilch).

The downside of these tools is you have various degrees of compatibility with Microsoft Office users (and when 80 percent of the market is still using MS Office, that's an important factor), but if you keep it simple without advanced formatting options (such as animations in presentations), I've found exchanging documents between various products works fine most of the time.

80/20 Rule

Let's face it, most users keep it very simple and for them, you could choose one of the free or low-cost alternatives. You don't have to give up Microsoft Office completely, just reduce the number of licenses. You can still have MS Office licenses for users in your accounting department who absolutely need Excel and its advanced features, but you can move everyone who does simple word processing and an occasional presentation to the alternative.

Microsoft Office isn't going anywhere any time soon, but if you're looking for ways to cut your operations costs, it makes a lot of sense to look at moving those employees who don't really need every bell and whistle under the sun to an alternative package, while providing a limited number of of Microsoft Office licenses for those users that absolutely need it. It's a smart approach and it could save your organization lots of money.

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