In the world of office productivity suites, where content and collaboration professionals aim to make users as efficient as possible, Microsoft Office is still way ahead of the pack when it comes to deployment. But there are many alternatives on the market now, which, according to new research by Forrester, are being tried out by companies, if not fully deployed -- not yet, that is.

It has always been hard to gauge how deep market penetration by alternative vendors has been. However, Forrester’s Market Update: Office Productivity Alternatives, by Matthew Brown with Philipp Karcher and Joseph Dang, set out to quantify that and came up with some interesting conclusions.

Office Upgrades Delayed?

Overall, the report found that, while the adoption of alternatives is still low at the moment, alternatives are beginning to find traction as complementary tools and even replacements for specific segments -- particularly around web-based platforms -- are certainly giving Microsoft something to think about.

The research is based around Forrester’s (news, site) Q1 2011 Global Desktop Innovation Online Survey of 150 office productivity in the US and Europe, and took into consideration solutions such as browser-based editors by Google (news, site) and Zoho (news, site), and traditional desktop alternatives from IMB Lotus and Novell.

The result, the research says, is that many content and collaboration professionals are delaying MS Office upgrades, while they try out one of, or even several, free alternatives that the competition is offering as starter packs, even if, to date, full-scale deployment remains “paltry."

In fact, Forrester says that some of its clients are even using the alternatives as bargaining chips with Microsoft when it comes to Office upgrade negotiations.

Geographically, adoption of alternatives in Europe is higher than in the US because enterprises and the public sector are more like to adopt open standards such as ODF and Linux, Brown says.

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Functionality, Productivity Suites

That said, there are other issues around the alternatives that will make them more attractive in the future. These include:

  • Functionality: Many vendors are adding functionality such as web-based deployment platforms, social, editing and collaboration features, mobile support and integrations with other enterprise software.
  • Budgets: Cutting license costs and dependency on Microsoft amid enterprise IT budget cuts continue to be primary drivers.
  • Diversity: With geographic and human diversity now a fact in many enterprises, the idea of one kind of suite working for everyone appears to be on the way out, as IT departments struggle to deal with increasingly diverse needs.

However, in this respect, no one expects any of the alternatives on the market to replace Microsoft anytime soon, with the majority looking at "mixed" environments, where they fill gaps that are not covered by Office, with all those surveyed -- even those using alternatives -- stating they some version of Office.

Productivity Functionality

So who’s doing what? According to Brown, many of the innovations that the alternatives are bringing to the table are built around web-based models. These include:

  • Browser-based models: Currently they include Google, ThinkFree and Zoho, and will be joined later in the year by IBM's Lotus Live Symphony. ThinkFree and Zoho offer server-based deployments behind the firewall, with others thinking along the same lines. Although this negates many of the benefits of SaaS, it will bring in enterprises with security and integration concerns.
  • Hybrid models: These bridge the offline support problems, with Google and Zoho offering plugins to sync Office documents and Google offering collaboration features to those not on Office and SharePoint 2010. Lotus is also strong on syncing.
  • Integrations with collaboration other applications: More vendors are adding collaboration features to their products, with Google offering video chat and Symphony and Zoho offering web conferencing, as well as offering integration with other enterprise products.
  • Social features:  Several vendors are developing content collaboration features that enable work inside content rather than around it, as well as improved check-in and check-out.
  • Mobile support: Many have added the ability to work from any device or platform.

Office Alternatives

While none of the vendors here think that they will be able to win a feature/function showdown with Microsoft, Brown says, they are adding enough functionality for companies to reconsider upgrading their Microsoft products.

But not all vendors offer all functionality, providing what corresponds with their vision of the future of productivity:


Google (news) has focused to a large extent on collaboration, with the takeup of Google Docs growing faster than any of its other apps. Use of Google productivity apps has grown from the bottom up, with most users starting with email and then turning to Docs as users across the enterprise pick up on it. This is also helped by the fact that Google is constantly adding collaboration and social features.


Zoho (news, site), Brown says, sees the future in components, with its biggest opportunity being third-party vendors that are embedding Zoho components inside their own applications. A number of its apps that are not competing with Google are also available in the Google apps’s market place.

IBM Lotus

Lotus (news, site) provides a comprehensive suite with a number of deployment options and is experiencing some uptake in some large enterprises, but not as an enterprise competitor. It is attractive to Notes and Domino users because of its close integration points and cost savings because they already have support included in their existing agreements.


As a contributor to LibreOffice, Novell (news, site) offers support for its own build, and -- although no decision as yet has been made by Oracle (news, site) as to whether it will turn OpenOffice over to the Document Foundation, the creators of LibreOffice -- Novell expects to distribute LibreOffice as part of its SUSE Linux desktop product and Novell Open Workgroup Suite collaboration platform.

As a final word, he argues that the development of Office 365 is going to have a major impact of accelerating the move to web-based platforms for office productivity with 100,000 clients already on the beta waitlist. There’s a lot of food for thought in this research if you are looking at a productivity suite. If you’re interested in more you can find it here.