Software That Smaller Businesses Need: Office Applications
Most smaller businesses only know what they see others around them using. In a previous installment, we discussed software for smaller businesses in more general form.
Do You Need The Big Name Proprietary Office Suite?
Imagine this: Here you are, working twelve to sixteen hour days, sweating how you are going to make payroll this week. You need to communicate with your suppliers and sometimes customers. You go down to your local office supplies superstore, where the salesperson shows you the “Super SMB Plus” computer system, complete with the big name proprietary office applications suite. Not knowing any different, you buy the system on the spot. Or maybe it does not have POS (Proprietary Office Suite, what did you think I meant?) installed, so you have to purchase that separately. Or do you?
There are lower-cost alternative office application suites around. Most of them are quick to mention that they are “compatible” with POS. Compatibility is relative. On Mucus-Soft‘s1 own software is 100% compatible with itself, and only when both parties have the same version. This is by design, as file compatibility is the primary reason why many people choose Mucus-Soft POS instead of a competing office applications suite.
- Corel’s WordPerfect suite of office applications has historically been a very high-quality group of products. Unfortunately, their product is slowly dying. While trumpeting their compatibility, they (like all other vendors) have deciphered most, but by no means all, of Mucus-Soft’s “secret sauce” file formats. In certain situations, particularly when you have complex documents and you wish to exchange them with users of POS, using WP will cause the formatting to be distorted.
One good thing I can say about WP is that it is adding partial support for ODF2 later this year. This will come in handy, I think, as more and more government agencies worldwide convert from POS secret sauce file formats to ODF formats. As ODF spreads in the government sector, WP may find its fortunes improving, if they ever institute full support for the latest versions of the standard.
- Sun’s StarOffice suite of office applications have come a long way since I was first exposed to versions 5.1 and 5.2. They (and their open source twin OpenOffice.org [OOo]) now feature unparalleled compatibility—not 100%, especially in complex documents—but still very good. The default file formats for these applications are ODF formats. This, again, is going to be very helpful for government contractors as various agencies convert to ODF.
- There may be others as well. Many of the applications currently available will be targeted at larger businesses.
Your Business’ Specific Needs
In some industries, you have to exchange complex documents with customers and suppliers. In that case, it may be more important that the documents retain their formatting. For example, I knew a guy whose employer, an architecture firm, wanted to switch from their CAD software, but could not do so because they could not risk having their drawings appear distorted. Until the open file format standards movement reaches that industry, it may be necessary for many companies to grit their teeth and put up with the high price and poor service that characterizes a monopoly.
However, in most businesses, exchanging files is only part of the way you do business, not the primary way you do business. This means, for example, that sending the intended content as the actual text of an e-mail message is an acceptable alternative to sending a file attachment that must be downloaded, virus-checked, and then opened in a potentially-vulnerable application. Also, posting a PDF version of a not-to-be-edited document on your company Web site is preferable to posting a POS office application document, which could be unusable if the other party’s version of the software is not compatible. If you have to send or post a document in an office application format, make sure (at the least) that ODF is one of the formats used, even if you also distribute the now-deprecated POS binary formats.
In most cases, a business can save quite a bit of money by contacting Sun and asking for a local reseller to bid to set up your business with StarOffice (or Corel and asking for WordPerfect). Be sure to tell the person on the other end (and follow it up with both e-mail and snail mail) that full compliance with ODF file formats as well as a fairly close appoximation of POS binary formats is an important part of your decision.
If you really desire it, you can download and install OpenOffice.org on an unlimited number of computers for the lowest possible price: free! Once again, it is free (as in free beer or zero price as well as free as in free speech).
Mucus-Soft, the vendor behind POS, generally moves menus and buttons around in each version. For a business, this often means that users are less productive and that more funds must be set aside for support after a version upgrade. The newest version of POS features a complete make-over. Where the 2003 version hid menu items that hadn’t been used in a while (causing support calls, of course), the 2007 version replaces the menu with a “ribbon” that shows the items that the software “thinks” you might want to use.
For the most part, alternative products are pretty stable from version to version. “Change for the sake of change” is not the way to please loyal customers. However, Mucus-Soft does not have to please customers, as most believe that its products are their only options.
Most proprietary software packages come with a contract that you agree to once you open the package or use the software. This “license” restricts what you can do with the software, but also restricts your rights to seek to repair any damages the software causes.
- If you open the shrink-wrap around the package, the license applies, even though you cannot read it first to see whether you agree. In rare cases, some or all of the EULA (the license) will be available on the vendor’s Web site.
- If the software does not meet your needs, you have no recourse except returning it to your retailer. However, your retailer will not accept returns once the shrink-wrap is removed from the box.
- Vendors often use technological usage restrictions (TUR), often euphemized as digital rights management (DRM), to limit the computers where you can install and use the software.
- Software reports back to vendor about your operating system, other software, and other information such as system IDs (GUIDs).
- Software uses proprietary file formats, so that you may lose access to your own data if you are not able to use vendor’s software any more.
- Choice of features and timing of upgrades is based on vendor’s needs rather than your needs.
- Vendor can disable features, even features you regularly use, at will. You have no recourse.
Big Name Office Software Is Not Necessary For Most Small Businesses
Most businesses do not gain any additional benefit by paying extra for POS. For most smaller businesses, it is only if the business has certain server software (also made by Mucus-Soft) that POS has any advantage over other office applications suites. Other office applications are simply good enough for the purposes that most businesses use their software to accomplish.
It is an individual decision as to what software a small business chooses to use. However, it is generally to the business owner’s advantage to spend less for similar performance. It is also advantageous to have the ability to deal with such agencies as the state of Massachusetts, the state of Minnesota, and the state of Texas.
Given these things, unless a business is in one of a very few fields where absolute conformity is necessary, a business that chooses an alternative office applications suite is actually making a wise choice. A business that chooses to stick with the big name, then, is paying too much for too little.
Most smaller businesses should choose an alternative office applications suite. It simply makes good business sense.
1 This is meant less as a slam against Microsoft than as a way to abstract it a little. Any big company with a monopoly position in its market that abuses that position to harm its competitors (and its end-users) could fit the Mucus-Soft label. For instance, if we were talking about telephone services, the big telecom companies could individually or collectively be described the same way.
2 OASIS OpenDocument Format for Office Applications (ODF) is a set of file format specifications using standardized technologies such as XML to make office documents available to users of many different office application suites and file manipulation tools on any operating system. Because anyone at any time has the right to implement ODF support in any application, and because the format is an open, documented specification, a user’s documents are available as long as the user has access to the file itself. This is in contrast to leading proprietary software, where the file formats are a secret known only to the software vendor, who changes them at will and decides whether or not to continue supporting older formats. There is a competing (proprietary, partially-specified and with partial permission to implement it) specification that is called “Office Open XML”, but OOXML, Mucus-Soft’s latest hope to keep users from having control of their data and to keep competitors from selling software to government agencies, appears to be going nowhere right now. If you are using software that allows the use of ODF as your default, you should enable that. If you are not using such software, you should consider switching, unless your vendor installs full, native support for saving and opening ODF files built into the applications.
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