Why is interest in free office suites declining?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 25, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

While I was getting serious about free software in 1999, GNU Parted appeared. I immediately assumed that it would mean the end of the market for proprietary partition editors, and I was puzzled at first when it didn't. Fourteen years later not much has changed, according to a Forrester Research survey on the adoption of Microsoft 2013, which suggests that the interest in free office suites like LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice has declined 8% since 2011.

Or, to be exact, that is what one report of the survey is saying -- I don't have the $2500 necessary to view the original survey. However, assuming the report is accurate, in a 2011 survey, 13% said they would consider free office suites as an alternative to MS Office. By contrast, in the current survey, only 5% would consider free office suites -- to be exact, 3% for OpenOffice, and 2% for LibreOffic. Meanwhile, 13% of companies surveyed were using Google Docs, 9% MS Office Web Apps, and 1% IBM Docs.

The survey also included stats about companies transitioning from MS Office 2010 to the 2013 release, which I'll ignore here, except to note that only 22% of the companies survey were using MSO 2013.

Taking this survey at face value, more people than ever are interested in alternatives to MS Office, which is good news to supporters of both free software and usability design. The bad news, of course, is that fewer companies are interested in free software productivity apps than even cloud solutions.

The paring down effect
To speculate freely, I suspect that one reason for the decline is that OpenOffice all but disappeared to the casual eye while it was being re-organized by Apache and not releasing regularly. As for LibreOffice, it is only three years old, and just starting to get name recognition. Although the re-organization from OpenOffice.org was badly needed, it has probably done little for market share.

However, I suspect there is much more to the figures. Very likely, the lack of acceptance of free alternatives is not simply a matter of a preference for proprietary apps over free onces. After all, Corel Wordperfect was listed in the survey as being used by only 1%.

Still less is it a matter of software usability or quality. Few users praise MS Office, particularly MS Word. With the possible exception of MS Excel, they endure it and joke about its inadequacies. Functionally, too, LibreOffice and OpenOffice (as well, the last time I checked years ago, as WordPerfect) are approximately equal to MS Office -- and, in the case of word processors, far superior to it. The problem still persists of sharing complicated layouts between MS Office and LibreOffice or OpenOffice, but. for the work that most people do, the import and export filters are generally adequate.

Nor can it be entirely a matter of conservative users clinging to what they know despite their lack of satisfaction - not when one in five is using cloud services, which barely even existed eight years ago. I doubt, too, that they are rejecting free software philosophy, since most corporate buyers I have met seem barely aware of it.

My speculation is that the few who are interested in alternatives are paring down their needs and contenting themselves with what they actually use.

MS Office, LibreOffice, and OpenOffice are all classical office suites, offering a full set of tools for all levels of users. However, very few users use more than a small percentage of these tools.

In fact, it is unusual to find users who actually know how to use an office suite properly. Especially when word processing, the average user treats an office suite as an electronic version of the typewriter. If they are aware of styles, they like dismiss the idea of using them as too complicated and as requiring too much setup.

Needless to say, this outlook makes for an incredible amount of inefficiency, but that is beside the point. The point is that, the way that most people work, the classical office suite probably feels excessive to them, full of features that they will never use that only distract them and make locating the features they do use all that much harder. They may endure such irrelevancies because they have always endured them, or because MS Office is an industry standard, but, from their viewpoint, switching from one classical office suite to another may seem no improvement.

By contrast, Google Docs and other cloud services represent a vast simplification. In terms of feature, they are often vastly inferior to the classical office suite on the desktop -- so much so that a few years ago, I wrote that comparing Google Docs to OpenOffice.org was an exercise in cruelty, like clubbing a staked out bunny. However, what matters is that they have the minimal features that users actually use, arranged so they are easily found. From the point of view of a basic user, they are better than classical office suites because they have less clutter.

In other words, office suites seem to be undergoing the same great simplification that computer hardware has during the same period. In hardware, people are switching from state-of-the-art computers to the memory and processor speeds of over a decade ago because they need nothing more advanced. In the same way, perhaps when people switch from a classic office suite, they are content with the relatively primitive cloud services because, mostly, they need nothing better.

If fewer companies really are considering free software office suites, at least part of the reason may be that they don't see any alternative that doesn't look like more of the same. Not caring about software freedom, when they switch, they are going to the other free-cost alternatives and logging instead into cloud services by a ration of nearly three to one.

For some free software alternatives, like AbiWord or Calligra Suite, that suggests a potential audience, if only they can let mainstream companies know that they exist. But for LibreOffice and OpenOffice, this trend suggests that usability, features, and free licenses are not enough for popularity. Perhaps they need to educate users (an undertaking that sounds as daunting as it is quixotic), or else they need to consider more ways to scale down to meet the typical user's expectations -- a conclusion that I find melancholy but very likely inevitable.

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