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Microsoft Word: At 30, the word processing package is king, but threats abound

Users regard Word as the standard; Google Docs, IBM Docs and Apache's free OpenOffice Writer would like to change that

By , Network World
October 23, 2013 02:51 PM ET

Network World - It is 30 years old and dominates the word processing market, but Microsoft Word is now more than ever fending off challenges from the cloud where less expensive and even free alternatives pose new threats, experts say.

Google Docs, IBM Docs and Apache’s free OpenOffice Writer are relatively well known but not-so-well used alternatives that vie for Word customers, largely without undermining Word’s solid base.

[QUIZ: Word at 30 

CASH COW: Microsoft couldn't be Microsoft without Word/Office]

BACKGROUND: Google Apps vs Office 365]

The problem for competitors is that Word has ruled word processing for so long that most people are familiar with how it works and recognize the value of using it because its documents can be read nearly ubiquitously, says Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner.

There’s a core set of capabilities customers want, and they have very little interest beyond them, Silver says, making it hard for the competition to lure customers away with new features. “The problem is people view word processing as a commodity,” he says.

The flip side is that alternative word processors could pick off customers because they offer those core capabilities cheaper. “Why pay so much to do what a much less expensive product can do for you?” he says. For example, Office Professional 2013, which contains Word, can be downloaded for $261.50 from Amazon.com; OpenOffice, which contains Writer, is free.

Price doesn’t seem to force shifts in loyalty, though, because in a Word-dominated world, when someone receives a Word document, they want to see it as it was created to be, and that requires Word. “There is no other product that can maintain the fidelity of a document created in Word,” says Silver.

This difficulty that challengers face is borne out by a recent Forrester Research survey that polled 155 IT decision makers about use of office productivity suites. Two years ago, the survey found 13% supported OpenOffice or a variant; this year that number was 5%, and that included an offshoot of OpenOffice called LibreOffice, according to “Office 2013 And Productivity Suite Alternatives”, written by Forrester analyst Philipp Karcher.

In the survey, 77% say it’s important that whatever suite of office productivity apps they use they must be compatible with Office formats.

Within a year, 38% of those surveyed say they will be using the latest version, Office 2013, although most of them that already use an earlier version say the upgrade comes with their current license. Still, for about half of respondents the migrations take 12 to 18 months, which signals a commitment to the suite.

Alternatives such as Google Docs and IBM Docs that are Web based pose a different challenge, but Microsoft has countered with Office Web Apps. These packages support word processing via browser, and Google is formidable. “Web versions of Word have much less functionality than Google Docs,” Silver says. “In the past few years customers have moved to Web Office on tablets but don’t get the experience they were looking for. It has three or four tabs with different functionalities to choose from, but the native version has nine tabs.”

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