Dropping Office

I hesitate to write this article because it seems like every day I wait, there's yet another headline of a major computer vendor dropping Microsoft Office products. Rather than bundle Microsoft's Office XP or Word 2002 with new computers, Dell, Gateway, HP, and Sony have all announced that they intend to use competing offerings from Corel. Toshiba, on the other hand, has chosen IBM's Lotus SmartSuite instead.

Microsoft Office, which runs on Microsoft Windows and various flavors of the Apple Macintosh, is said to be installed on as many as 96% of the desktops around the world. As such, it has long been the cash cow for Microsoft. Office comes in several flavors, the cheapest of which is well over $500. As this CNet article notes, many of these companies peddle computers -- and I use the term "computer" loosely -- for less than that. A resourceful person could obtain a copy of Corel WordPerfect Office 2002 for two hundred and change. This look at the Staples catalog will give you idea of the difference in price.

Though no one but the companies in question know what they are paying, one would have to assume that Corel is giving the computer vendors sweetheart deals on their Office suite. To back this up, look at the price of a new Sony with and without Microsoft Office. Without, the Sony costs $2,000, and it includes Corel WordPerfect. With, it costs almost $2,500. That's a price difference of $500, which coincidentally almost the full retail price of Microsoft Office. Unless Sony is losing money by bundling Corel WordPerfect, which I doubt, Corel is practically giving away WordPerfect to the major computer vendors.

Such practices are not uncommon. For a long time, Microsoft gave mail order companies like Dell and Gateway screaming deals on the Microsoft Office suite of products. It has been argued that Dell and Gateway would not exist today if it wasn't for the favoritism shown these companies, as such deals helped to offset the substantial shipping charges that get tacked onto mail order computers. Not even the HPs, Compaqs, and Pacard Bells of the world got such deals, let alone the mom and pop computer stores of the world.

So, computers just got cheaper, which, in general is a good thing. Individually, Microsoft, Corel and IBM make respectable, full featured productivity suites. In fact, most people find that each application offers too many features, which is generally not a problem but an inconvenience from a usability standpoint. The real problem is that none of the major productivity suites play well with others. Corel and IBM try hard to be compatible with Microsoft document formats, but in reality, this compatibility is superficial.

Simply put, I've yet to see a Word document look exactly the same when opened in a word processing program from a competing vendor. Heck, they don't always look the same in different versions of Microsoft Word. Most of time, when switching between vendors' products, just the document formatting is lost. Sometimes, however, content is lost. This may be alright if you are migrating your own documents from one productivity suite to another: you know what the document is supposed to look like and what it's supposed to contain. When sending people documents, as businesses often do with their customers, this is simply not acceptable.

If you find yourself without Microsoft Office, or you're sharing Microsoft Office documents with people who don't have the suite, there's hope. Microsoft has released a set of Office Viewers, which are lite versions of all the Office programs. They will allow you or your customers to view documents created in Microsoft Office but not edit them. The Office Viewers can be downloaded for free from the Microsoft site.

There's one final thing that needs pointing out. I find it difficult to believe that, within the span of a couple weeks, five of the largest computer vendors decided to switch away from Microsoft. I find it easier to believe that there is a certain level of collusion, that the vendors have decided to flex their collective market muscle. Perhaps they were embolden by the anti-trust ruling against Microsoft. Perhaps they just finally tired of giving Microsoft $100 (the cost of Windows XP Home Edition) to $850 (Windows 2000 Professional and Office XP Professional) of what they get for for a system.

Regardless of the reasons, consumers in the market for a new PC need to be aware that the apparent cost benefit of an alternative productivity suite does not necessarily equate to real world savings. Many customers, especially businesses, will find themselves purchasing Microsoft Office after the fact, either because it is the software that they are most comfortable with or because they need to be able to reliably share documents with colleagues and customers. In this way, the new lower price of these PCs may be misleading.

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