Small Business Software Support and Total Costs
OpenOffice.org and Google Docs are both free to acquire. Organizations can set up Google Apps for Your Domain services with no up-front costs, or pay for premium service at $50 a head. The downside to this is that it's all or nothing: You can't mix and match free and unpaid seats with Apps for Your Domain: So the per-seat costs will increase every time you add a new user. However, at $50 a user, it's not an onerous cost.
It's possible to buy support for OpenOffice.org or its proprietary cousin, Oracle Open Office (formerly StarOffice). However, the future is hazy for these products now that Sun has been acquired by Oracle. Oracle recently instituted a $90 a head charge for its ODF Plugin for Microsoft Office, which makes one wonder about what the company plans to do around OpenOffice.org support packages.
Oracle's Enterprise Edition of Open Office starts with a minimum of 100 licenses at $90 a pop and $19.80 for support for one year. Support isn't available with the personal edition that's priced at $50, so if an official support package is important, you'll be carrying some heavier costs with Oracle than with Docs.
Small Business Software Features and Your Data
Google Docs is really good for very simple documents and importing Microsoft Office formats without a lot of complex layouts or formulas (in the case of Excel files) but it's not quite as full-featured as OpenOffice.org. Browser-based applications are not yet ready to replace desktop applications fully.
For example, the macro support and import of Excel documents is not as robust for Google Docs. Its presentation application is not as full-featured as OpenOffice.org Impress, and the features with Writer outstrip Google Docs by a country mile. If you need to create complex documents, OpenOffice.org is called for. Especially if you're backfilling for Microsoft Office and need to import a lot of older documents in Microsoft Office formats.
But if all you need are very simple documents, basic spreadsheets or the ability to whip out a quick memo, Google Docs is fine. In fact, it has one major advantage over OpenOffice.org: you can collaborate on documents much more easily and effectively. OpenOffice.org has relatively good revision controls for Writer, but nothing for Calc and Impress. So you won't be able to do effective collaboration with spreadsheets and presentations in OO.org.
Finally, there's the data consideration. As a "cloud" service, Google Docs means hosting your business data with Google and all that entails. There's no good way to back up documents, so if Google suffers a glitch then documents are simply gone. That's not a common occurrence but it's something to consider.
It also means that any sensitive or confidential data will be hosted by a third party. It's unlikely that Google is going to peek into your documents in a non-automated fashion, but there's always a potential for data theft or break-ins. If the service is compromised at some point, your business docs might be compromised as well.
So which productivity suite best suits your business? Most organizations will probably be better off with OpenOffice.org in the near future while Google Docs matures. You might want to allow your employees to use Google Docs to collaborate or work on simple documents, if you're comfortable with the thought of Google holding your data.
There's a lot to like with Google Docs, and an almost maintenance-free offering is a major win for small businesses. But the trade-offs aren't quite worth it right now. Until Google can offer more control over your data, and better offline tools, businesses should look at OpenOffice.org for the next few years.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
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