Small Business Software: OpenOffice.org vs. Google Docs

by Joe Brockmeier

We compare these two low-or-no-cost productivity suites to help you decide which one is right for your small business.

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.

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.

There's no doubt that OpenOffice.org will continue to be available in some form, however, and with commercial support. Novell offers support packages for its branch of OpenOffice.org on Windows and Linux, and it's not the only one.

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.

Bottom Line

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 jzb@zonker.net and follow him on Twitter.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday May 12th 2010
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