It’s Time to Eliminate Microsoft Office from the Enterprise

By Deane Barker on October 22, 2007

I wonder how long it will before Web-based Office apps trump client-based apps in intranet environments. Slowly but surely, Google Docs has become my default choice when I have to write a document or a spreadsheet. How long before this infiltrates the enterprise?

I got to thinking about this when I saw this bit on EditGrid over at CMSWire. Now, this is still software-as-a-service, but it proves that other people are as serious as Google about emulating office productively apps on the Web. How long before we get an installable, Web-based, Office replacement?

Implemented well, and — perhaps more importantly — presented to staff well, this would go over like gangbusters in any of the corporate environments I’ve worked in. The fact is hardly any employees in an organization use Microsoft Office anywhere near its capabilities (see this post). Ninety percent of Word’s capability, in particular, is wasted (see this post).

I’ll even go out on a limb and say that corporate users are spoiled by giving them a copy of Office. The reality is that hardly any of them need it. Yes, even exempt-level employees. And yes, even the CEO. (Hell, especially the CEO…)

Google Documents is an acceptable word-processing replacement for an enormous amount of users. The one thing it doesn’t do well is print. Conveniently, this is less of a big deal for corporate environments. If everyone is in the same company and gets used to viewing stuff online or accepts a little less fidelity when printing, this becomes a non-issue. (Exporting documents for dissemination outside the company is still an issue, but I’d venture less than 5% of Word documents get outside the walls of the enterprise.)

Google Spreadsheets would need some work before being enterprise-ready. While a lot of people think “spreadsheet” means “way to store information in rows and columns,” a lot of finance departments exploit Excel to its limits. However, what I’m seeing from EditGrid is that pushing this envelope on the Web is possible.

I haven’t tried Google Presentations, but I rarely see Power Point used for anything beyond bullet points anyway, so this would fit right in.

What I love most about Google Docs is that I don’t have to worry about files. My home page in Google Docs is a list of documents I’ve worked on recently, and there’s a handy list of folders of older documents. I can invite people to look at documents I’ve been working on, and I can allow them to edit if I want.

You don’t realize how constraining the concept of a “file” is until you’re liberated from it.

This needs a handful of things to make any intranet developer’s heart race:

  1. Make this installable so I keep everything on my network
  2. Make it themeable so I can brand it for my company
  3. Let me supply centralized stylesheets so I control formatting as centrally as possible
  4. Tie it into Active Directory so knows who everyone in my company is and can use that information when people want to share documents
  5. Give me an API so I can reach into it for content for my intranet (a “Publish this Document to the Intranet” would insanely cool)

I truly believe the day is coming where any request to install Office requires a Justification Form and three signatures. We need to get there sooner rather than later.

What This Links To


  1. Some online office suites like ThinkFree and Zoho are backed by OpenOffice’s code. So they’ve got quite powerful spreadsheet functions, high-fidelity print output and the like. Of course, you’ve also got the full Office-like bloat in the browser instead of the simplicity of Google Docs. So there’s a tradeoff there.

  2. I don’t see this catching on in real businesses for quite some time, for two major reasons and one minor one.

    First, re-training non-technical people. Getting non-technical people up to using that 10% of Word has been a long, uphill battle. The productivity loss resulting from yanking the rug out from under them would far outweigh the relatively cheap licensing costs associated with Office.

    Second, a self-hosted option is going to be a necessity. Even at some of the smaller companies I’ve worked with, there is no way in the world that I could convince them it’s a good idea to store their documents externally (even if I believed it myself). Most businesses are fiercely protective of their internal documents and would never allow such loose, external storage of them.

    Also, the bandwidth cost of moving a fairly active Office user online would very quickly offset the savings in licensing costs. That will diminish as bandwidth becomes cheaper and more readily available, but it’s not currently a trivial issue.

  3. Enterprise environments are strange beasts; most of the ones I’ve been in still refuse to accept Firefox and their Flash plugin installations are three versions behind because they haven’t finished “security analysis.” No, it’ll take a self-hosted option (like Dave says) + a multi-million dollar price tag before it catches on in the Enterprise.

    Also, just a note: no one is “spoiled” by having Microsoft Office. “Abused,” perhaps. “Scarred” almost certainly. But never “spoiled.”

  4. I think Dave’s comment about a self-hosted solution is about the only way I’d get away with it, even if I wanted to. At the end of every quarter I have to document what users have access to our business files, that they are backed up regularly, that there are offsite backups and that the backup media has been tested. I’m not sure Google is going to provide me with all that.

  5. Also, until the office replacement solutions get EVERY feature (there’s a Joel on Software article about this) that MS Office has, it won’t get adopted. Sure, only 10% of features in use per user – but that 10% changes per installation.

    Also, until the word processor supports as robust a versioning and editing system as Word does right now, it’s going to hit resistance in large organizations (or smaller orgs with a focus on producing documents).

  6. Not to mention the problems Google’s had with XSS. Uploading your corporate documents for all the world to see is probably not a good idea.

    Google Docs XSS but w/o the XSS…

    Goes back to the requirement of a self-hosted installation…

  7. A quick note here —

    I don’t know if I wasn’t clear, but in arguing that something like Google Docs would work in the enterprise, I was specifically referring to something that could be installed inside the firewall. I wasn’t proposing actually using Google Docs.

  8. Adam Kalsey:

    Just to clarify, ThinkFree was launched in 2000 using code we built from scratch – not OpenOffice. We have spent the past 10 years reverse engineering Microsoft Office file formats so that we can have the highest level of compatibility with Microsoft available.

    Deane, to the larger point of your article: One thing we have seen is that some enterprises are giving up trying to control their users, and starting to provide more flexibility. Companies are providing employees with a baseline, and giving them an allowance to purchase whatever else they believe they need. Not exactly a justification form with three signatures but more self-regulated.

    In this case, the company can use ThinkFree, Google, or Zoho as a baseline and if users really feel they need a higher feature set (macros, pivot tables, whatever) they can spend their allowance on something else. We believe that ThinkFree serves the needs of a majority of users, so the cost savings for a corporation could be quite substantial.

    The two most important features to enterprise users, we believe, are some of the things you mentioned – being able to install the application behind the firewall, and offline use. ThinkFree is the only office suite that has a Server Edition that you can install behind a firewall, and use offline or online.

    Other points raised in comments:

    • The fact that we look and feel like Microsoft means that there is no need to re-train people on how to use our software.
    • Because we developed our main applications using Java, the bandwidth costs are negligible.
    • With ThinkFree Server you can brand the web pages however you want.
    • We have another service – sort of social networking for office documents – ThinkFree Docs. This very well could be used for intranet use.

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