Life in the world of Office Suites is getting into the fast lane with speed that is simply overwhelming. With newer players flirting with newer technologies and the Open Source getting collaborative like never before the world of Office Suites is seeing many changes. The undisputable market leader is Microsoft Office with almost 85% share but noteworthy is Sun Microsystems like yesteryears isn't the only challenger. Google Docs, ThinkFree.com, Zoho.com recently launched InstaColl.com's Live-Documents.com are just few of the suites challenging Microsoft's cash cow Microsoft Office.
The Central Focus - Microsoft Office
The central focus is Microsoft Office and their offerings are an impressive list of services all for no or little costs for which Microsoft charges substantially. There is no reading between the lines or any air of subtlety about being seen as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Take the case of Sabeer Hotmail Bhatia's Live-documents.com which calls itself "functionality equivalent to MS Office-Word, Excel and PowerPoint"
Or take the case of ThinkFree.com which very clearly styles itself as "an online alternative to Microsoft Word".
Google versus Microsoft
The rivalry between Google Docs and Microsoft is the stuff history is made of. Google, led by thought leaders, is the undisputable king of the online experience. On the other hand is Microsoft, the biggest company in the universe and also the company that rules our desktop experience and also perhaps the company on whose applications most of us in our generation had their first computer experience on. As connectivity gets pervasive, the lines between online and offline are blurring. And that's the reason for conflict between the tech giants. Precisely for this reason the war between the giants has now been extended in the Office Suite space.
Google's attack right in the heart of Microsoft cash cow Microsoft Office with an alternative Office Suite may or may not have been successful, something only time shall tell, but Google has made a rather bold statement that Office Suites of the future are about an online experience, available anywhere and everywhere based on a collaboration platform. According to Rajen Sheth, Product Manager, Google Inc "We think the time is right for users to embrace online applications in ways that make sense for them -- at work, with their families, with their friends, when they're traveling, wherever." He further added "Sometimes you're going to want a powerful application that works best off your own machine; other times, as in many cases where you're trying to communicate and collaborate with others, online apps make more sense."
Microsoft Office in subscription avatar
Getting Office Suite online is something that perhaps Microsoft also agrees with. Microsoft recently launched Office Live which it styles as an "online extension of Microsoft Office". Though it's yet to be launched in India but Microsoft recently launched subscription based "Office Professional 2007 Prepaid Edition in India". Microsoft says "It gives customers the flexibility to pay as they go and renew when they choose, therefore reducing upfront capital investment for small businesses and consumers." According to Sanjay Manchanda, Director, Microsoft Business Division "The value proposition of Microsoft Office in its subscription form is productivity. In fact for Microsoft it's always been productivity."
Compared to the hybrid SaaS based models of other players and the kind of collaboration that happens in Office Suites this may seem a little rudimentary but it's clearly working for Microsoft which sees a demand from SME's for such a solution. According to Sanjay "We are seeing- strong demand for from small and medium businesses in India, who are finding that office productivity solutions like the 2007 Microsoft Office helps them stay be more responsive and efficient in an increasingly competitive marketplace."
The Market Segmentation
The Office Suite market is segmented into Enterprise, SMB and Consumer.
Interoperability (whilst exchanging documents with partner organizations)
In the enterprise and SMB segments it's Microsoft which is the clear leader followed by Sun Microsystems. The enterprise and SMB segment is also where the bulk of revenue is concentrated and that's where Microsoft Office clearly has an unchallenged leadership which by many estimates is as high as 85%.
Talking about market penetration Dan Farber in Zdnet shared something interesting
"Zoho has many strengths today, especially its set of products, but it will take more to gain a major foothold in a market against such well endowed competitors."
Interestingly an unconfirmed report says that Microsoft claims that enterprise customers use only 10% of the features in today's productivity applications. With the unchallenged leadership it has Microsoft either understands the customer really well or is clearly missing the bus. As of now the former seems to be case and it's working for Microsoft.
The next level of Office Suite
Google - features and collaboration
While Microsoft's emphasis is on productivity, Google and others are emphasizing on costs, features and collaboration. Says Rajen Sheth from Google Inc "With Google Apps (Google's hosted suite of collaboration tools including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Docs) businesses can tap into an unprecedented stream of technology and innovation at a fraction of the cost of traditional installed solutions." Collaborate, add and edit seems to be Google mantra. Rajen Sheth added "Google Docs focuses on building a platform that is secure but open. Authors have fine grained control over who can see the document and who can edit it, but the philosophy is, amongst that trusted set of individuals, to make it very easy to collaborate and add information. The ultimate focus is on usability for the end user in a secure environment."
For Microsoft it's productivity that's clearly the focus. According to Radhesh Balakrishnan, director, platform strategy, Microsoft India, "Productivity continues to be our central focus. The definition of productivity now transcends into collaboration similar to what we have in workspace.officelive.com now. Office Live will now to be taking it to the next level of productivity."
Talking about DRM and security. Will it ever be a differentiator? Probably not but security and DRM is going through interesting changes that can bring about richness in experience and a sense of security never felt before in the Office space. Consider as an example you being able to date erase a document or being in control of a document sent to someone else. Just last week there was news of Xerox getting into the field of document security. According to reports the company is developing a new technology, intelligent redaction, which enables users to selectively encrypt different portions of a given document for different recipients.
The other players
Others like Zoho.com, Instacoll.com and Thinkfree.com are not just satisfied with being online. Zoho last week released an upgrade of Zoho writer which allows users to work on documents offline and then synchronise the offline version with the online one. Instalcoll's Live Documents, on the other hand offers a suite of online productivity apps that its creators claim is the functional equivalent of Word, Excel etc. Sabeer Bhatia wanting to relive his Hotmail ecstasy reportedly said "Live Documents does for documents what HotMail did for e-mail." Let's see if this time his arzoo does come true. Thinkfree.com with products like ThinkFree Desktop tries to re-create the MS Office experience and even goes to the enterprise and SMB level with Thinkfree Server Edition.
While a lot of these products are being compared with Microsoft's products, Microsoft believes its products are far superior than any of the available ones and refuses to get into comparisons. It talks about productivity and richness in experience in its product. Radhesh Balakrishnan from Microsoft says "The productivity needs of an organization are maturing from being able to create a document then being able to share. Given this need software plus services for example workpsace.offlielive.com becomes an incremental value proposition. For a even richer experience a share point would do justice."
The Last Word
Last week Martin Veitch in IT Week said that "so far there has been scant evidence of any weakening in the giant's (Microsoft's) dominance." Martin is probably right. The me-too companies and an online office suite a month isn't probabaly going to hurt the leadership position of Microsoft Office. Noteworthy to remember is a sell out like Hotmail.com or Writely.com (now Google Docs) is a one time experience. How many email entrepreneurs got paid $400 million post Hotmail.com? An entrepreurial office suite is one thing but challenging the leader quite another. In the email space it took a Gmail with a radical technology and features to turn the tables. In the Office space an Office equivalent of Gmail is missing.
Documents are not just about creation but about interoperability. In the quest for interoperability most current Office Suites only seem to be accentuating the MS Office leadership position. They even call themselves the "functional equivalent of MS Office." The only one who seems benefit from all this scatter is Google, a company that rules our online experience, as the web becomes our new desktop and our browser the new writer. From the current lot it is also perhaps the only one that has the capability on taking on MS Office in the near future with perhaps a better and more intelligent Google Docs than what it currently has. Till then it's Microsoft Office calling the shots.