Every company needs an office suite; some grouping of applications that allow for document creation.  Frequently, these office suite are directly integrated into communications suites.  Combined, these applications form a productivity suite.

Frequent document types created are word processing, spreadsheets and presentations.  Most of the world will know these as Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.  There are, however alternatives to Microsoft’s Office suite of applications.

Apple’s alternative – iWork – is gaining momentum at a surprising rate.  Google Apps is also steadily gaining followers, despite being largely an online only proposition.  (Desktop and mobile clients exist, but their current value for content creation is questionable at best.)  IBM offers Lotus Symphony while the open source community offers Libre Office, both of them descended from the now largely defunct Open Office.

All of these packages can “get the job done,” but some do so better than others.  Microsoft’s suite is certainly the most established productivity suite, and with good reason.  Office includes Outlook, arguably the single best email client ever developed.  Office integrates with a plethora of collaboration and communications software ranging from Sharepoint and Exchange to Lync.  These applications in turn integrate with other applications; the “full stack” Microsoft productivity approach is nothing short of amazing.

The fly in the ointment is cost.  Microsoft is expensive.  The advantage to Microsoft is the integration with all the various components, but actually licenceing the totality of those components starts driving the cost per user north of $1500 per refresh cycle.

iWork offers only a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation application with their productivity suite, but on the flipside it starts at $80 per user and goes down from there.  (Apple volume licenceing starts at 10 users.)  This is a critical consideration as Macs are starting to invade the enterprise.

Google – champion of cloud computing – takes a different path.  They charge $5 per user per month for Google Apps, banking on flexibility of licence management to bring the customer base in.  Integration with communications services is free, but availability is restricted to certain countries only.  The slow but steady conversion from other office packages to the browser-based suite has shown that this model is sustainable.  Microsoft certainly thinks so, having recently launched their own competitor.

IBM takes a different approach; Lotus Symphony is free.  Again, only the most basic productivity apps are included, the business model is based on hooking you into IBM as a supplier so they can sell you Lotus Notes.  Lotus Notes is a top-notch communications suite that runs a little north of $100 per user.

Finally, there is Libre Office.  Libre Office is free.  As in beer as well as free as in speech.  There is a certain hope that you will donate to the project (though money or developer time) if you find the product useful, but the open source philosophy has provided a top notch productivity suite at no cost to the end user.

The snag of course is that there is no communication suite at all.  The open source email clients on offer are maintained by separate teams, the integration is utter pants and quite frankly they simply aren’t all that good.  There is no collaboration software to speak of and the systems administration overhead of finding relevant open source products to fill the gap and glue them all together are a “hidden cost” worth bearing in mind.

At the end of the day, there exists choice.  The sheer variety of offerings means that you are not restricted when choosing the right fit for your business.  eGeek Consulting uses Libre Office for content creation and Google Apps for collaboration and communications.  Our clients use many and varied mixes of the software suites discussed above, and we are constantly researching alternatives.

It is worth the time to analyse your business productivity software needs.  Understanding what is on offer and choosing the right fit can increase productivity and save you a significant amount of money in licenceing fees.