When Alternatives Make Sense

New licensing scheme might push companies to Microsoft alternatives

This July, Microsoft will relaunch its controversial Licensing 6.0 program, which I first discussed in October 2001 (see http://www.winnetmag.com/articles/index.cfm?articleid=22910). Licensing 6.0 will provide corporations with a subscription-style pricing structure that can be less expensive for companies that regularly upgrade their Windows and Microsoft Office versions. However, for companies that perform less-frequent upgrades—a more common scenario, I believe—Licensing 6.0 could be significantly more expensive than Microsoft's previous licensing program.

Open Source proponents argue that Licensing 6.0 is an opening for Linux, citing that platform's low cost, reliability, and increasing prowess in both desktop and server applications and services. However, the situation is too complicated for most enterprises to replace Windows with an Open Source solution. Indeed, replacing Windows is not much of a solution at all; the real problem with Licensing 6.0 isn't Windows per se, but the cost of constant upgrading.

When Microsoft first postponed the program last October, a Giga Information Group and Sunbelt Software survey found that more than 80 percent of technology professionals had negative feelings about Licensing 6.0 because it would increase costs. And more than 35 percent of survey respondents said they were considering Microsoft alternatives.

But Microsoft alternatives aren't necessarily limited to the underlying platform. We use Windows on the server and desktop for very specific reasons, and if the feedback I received from the April 30 UPDATE commentary "Maybe It's Time for a New Platform" is any indication, few Windows customers are interested in replacing their platform; after all, the point is to avoid the upgrade treadmill and save money, not take a religious platform stand.

For many businesses, the cost of Microsoft Office is far greater than the cost of Windows, and this, I suspect, is the rationale behind Licensing 6.0. Windows customers tend to stay one generation behind the current version (i.e., most users are still deploying Windows 2000 rather than Windows XP on their desktops), whereas Office customers tend to stay two generations behind the current version (Office 97 is still the most deployed Office version today.) If Microsoft can get its customers to upgrade on a regular basis—every 2 years, thanks to Licensing 6.0—the company can report more Windows and Office license sales each year and, perhaps more importantly, maintain a steady and predictable income rate. Currently, the company must hope that customers see enough benefit in new software versions to warrant an upgrade, creating sales spikes amid long periods of downtime.

But office suites, unlike OSs, are fairly mature and haven't changed much over the past several years. I suspect that most people stay with Office because of computer package deals and inertia, but the underlying reason is file-format compatibility. And until recently, few credible challengers offered good Office file-format compatibility, making such competition moot in the eyes of most decision makers.

However, the release of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 6.0 has dramatically changed the situation. And if you're interested in saving money while achieving a high level of Office file-format compatibility, this product might be what you're looking for. From a price standpoint, StarOffice hits the "suite" spot, with a $75.95 cost for a single package that you can install on as many as five machines. Purchase a volume license, however, and the cost sinks as low as $50 per five machines. And that price includes full product support from Sun and, in the case of the retail packaging, a surprisingly hefty paper-based manual—something that's been missing from Office since about 1995.

StarOffice offers what Sun describes as the 80 percent of Office's features that most people need. The package includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, business graphics, and desktop database applications, and surprisingly good compatibility with Office document types, including Word's Track Changes feature—a first for any alternative office suite.

Sun is realistic about its chances for replacing Office across the board, and the company doesn't blindly recommend that enterprises "rip and replace" Office. Instead, companies can evaluate which users need specific features in Microsoft's Office suite and then deploy StarOffice to the 80 to 85 percent of the remaining workforce—the so-called typical users. Thanks to document-type compatibility, users will be able to easily transfer data between the two suites. And because StarOffice looks and acts like a typical office suite, users won't require any special training. One problem, however, is StarOffice's lack of an email or personal information manager (PIM) package; previous versions include such a component but Sun found that few users were interested.

If you're not sure about StarOffice, check out its Open Source cousin, OpenOffice.org 1.0, which is available for free download from the Web. OpenOffice.org is the foundation for StarOffice, although the freeware lacks some commercial features found in StarOffice, such as the database, the commercial spell-checking component (although it includes an Open Source replacement), WordPerfect document-type compatibility, and of course, Sun support. Otherwise, the two products are virtually identical, and OpenOffice.org can give you an excellent StarOffice preview.

In short, your software decisions will boil down to cost—including the upfront cost, ongoing upgrade costs, and training costs—as well as compatibility, reliability, and stability. With an increasing body of viable Microsoft alternatives, we can expect to benefit from lower prices, better features, and more choices. In the meantime, check out the competition: You might be surprised.

Windows XP SP1
Next week, I'll have extensive information about Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) and why enterprises will want to apply this upgrade as soon as it becomes available. Look for XP SP1 in Q3 2002.

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