Microsoft is getting ready to ship Office 2010, but a lot of small businesses realize they don't need all the features (or licensing costs) that come with Microsoft Office. The front-runners for Office replacements are OpenOffice.org and Google Docs, but which one is right for your business?
First, why do we narrow down the options to only OpenOffice.org or Google Docs? They're not the only competing solutions to MS Office. For online office suites you'll find more full-featured competitors like Zoho, and desktop users can choose Apple's iWork suite or many others. However, Google Docs and OpenOffice.org (OO.org) are the entrenched players here.
Zoho is a pretty interesting suite, but it lacks the muscle of a company like Google. The iWork suite is fine for some work, but the suite is much more limited than Docs or OO.org, and it's limited to the Mac OS X platform. Unless your business is entirely run on Macs, iWork isn't a workable solution.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the main contenders.
Running and Accessing the Suites
The first consideration is whether the suite will fit with your existing setup. The good news is that Google Docs and OO.org are each cross-platform compatible. Docs will run in just about any modern Web browser, and OO.org runs on Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and other OSes.
One area where OpenOffice.org falls down a tiny bit is mobile access. You can reach Google Docs, or at least a limited version, on many mobile devices. OpenOffice.org is pretty much tethered to the desktop without any mobile solution.
In fact, OpenOffice.org is not only tethered to the desktop, it's tethered to specific desktops. Google Docs allows you to log in and work with your documents from just about any connected computer. Whether you're at home, at work, on vacation, it doesn't matter. As long as there's a reasonably fast Internet connection and a modern browser, you can log into Google Docs and start working.
Connectivity is the Achilles' heel for Docs. If Google suffers an outage of some kind, you're just out of luck. It doesn't happen often, but we'd be wary of relying on Google Docs entirely for my business documents. What happens when a client wants material you can't access? OO.org might crash occasionally, but it can't keep you from your docs entirely.
Google also recently axed support for Google Gears, which was the technology that allowed users to work with Docs and Gmail offline. The company has said it will re-implement offline functionality using HTML 5, but it's unclear when this will happen or how full-featured it will be.
Product Roadmaps and Updates
This brings us to the next consideration, the future outlook for the projects. There's little worry that either Docs or OO.org are going away. Google's a pretty healthy company, and it's investing heavily in the Google Apps ecosystem. You can bank on Docs being around for a while, but there's very little visibility into the company's plans for Docs on a large scale.
Google also does product development a bit differently than traditional software companies. This has some ups and downs for small businesses. First, the good: Google Docs requires almost no support from your organization's IT staff or contractors. Open the Web browser, log in, and you're running the most recent version of Docs. No need to worry about security updates or upgrades.
The flip side is that Google pushes out upgrades in a pretty random fashion. This is mostly beneficial, as the updates tend to be new features that will benefit users. But what Google can give, it can also take away. As with Google Gears and offline support, sometimes Google zaps a feature and there's just nothing you can do about it. With OpenOffice.org, you control the updates. It's possible to test updates before they're pushed out, and if an update removes a vital feature, you can opt to hold off on the update.
OpenOffice.org, as an open source project, is much more transparent than Google when it comes to its product roadmap. It's pretty easy to watch OO.org development and see what's going to be changing in the near future, and what features are being prioritized.