by Laurianne McLaughlin

Ditch Microsoft Office? An Intriguing New Alternative

Nov 14, 20065 mins
Enterprise Applications

Many a CIO gets an almost dreamy look on his face when you discuss the idea of a Microsoft Office-less office, I learned at our magazine’s CIO 100 conference this past summer. So dreamy, you’d think we were discussing a vacation in Tahiti. But will you actually get there, to a day when you close the door on Office? Not many of you have, yet. But I’m betting a new alternative – Glide Business, launching on Nov. 29 – will make more companies stop dreaming and start investigating. (Microsoft plans to release Office 2007, the newest version of its suite, to corporate customers around Nov. 30.)

You can ditch Microsoft Office for Novell’s OpenOffice suite now, of course. But the idea that really sparks imagination is a suite of web-based apps that you access from anywhere, which delivers Office-like power, without the constant upgrade cost and hardware appetite of Microsoft Office. Google garners most of the web app buzz, as it did with its recent release of Google Docs and Spreadsheets, a word processor and spreadsheet combo tool for individuals and groups. But Google hasn’t dished up a true suite, yet.

TransMedia, a much less known company, goes further with its forthcoming Glide Business product. This is a Web operating system, plus a sturdy suite of office apps, plus a synchronization tool that lets you keep documents of your choosing – perhaps your entire “My Documents” folder – updated and synchronized on your local PC and on storage space on the web.

Does TransMedia have your attention yet, or do you want a free companion ticket to Tahiti, too?

“We see this application as a replacement for over-priced software,” says TransMedia CEO Donald Leka. And when you’re talking about Microsoft Office, those are fighting words.

TransMedia will sell Glide Business as software as a service. For enterprise customers, cost will range from $18 to $36 per user, per month, depending on number of users. Small businesses can get in for $20 to $30 per month for a five-user pack.  There’s also a free consumer version, and a standard consumer version that starts at $4.95 per month.

Offline versions of the word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool will follow, so you can work on those documents even when you can’t get online. (TransMedia plans to make these versions available in January, 2007.)

Leka’s company launched a consumer-minded suite in 2005, which caught some media attention but was criticized for having a somewhat funky (innovative but unfamiliar) set of interface conventions. Glide Business, however, looks and feels like traditional web browsers, based on my peek at an early version.

Apps include a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool, calendar, contact manager, email, and image editor, with import and export capability with their Microsoft Office counterparts, Leka says. The spreadsheet (which won’t be ready for use until Dec. 13, according to TransMedia) promises to deal with Excel macros and formulas, Leka says, which is a sticking point with some other alternative spreadsheets.

These apps look promising, though I’ll want to put the final versions through their paces and see how they stand up to everyday work. The image editor lets you manipulate photos quite intuitively, using some 75 effects and manipulations. The Calendar integrates with Microsoft Outlook. Glide Business offers simple ways to add images, audio and video to documents.

With Glide Sync, a client app that resides on your Windows or Mac desktop or laptop, you can synchronize a folder of your choice, say “My Documents,” with Glide Business, Leka says. This makes everything in that folder accessible via any PC with web access, whether it’s a doc created in Glide or not. TransMedia promises to sync not only all your Word, Excel, and PowerPoint docs, but also audio and video files.

In this way, Glide Business is a “giant compatibility engine,” Leka says: It enables browser-based previews of some 250 types of file formats, say .pdf or .doc files. All recipients need when you send files from Glide is a Web browser, he says. 

For CIOs wondering where all these synchronized files will live “in the cloud,” you can back up to your own servers or use TransMedia’s ASP hosting service, Leka says.

Leka has, without question, a slog of a sales job ahead. For CIOs of the largest enterprises, a leap to Glide will be a huge decision. “We’re talking to Dow 30 companies looking at ways to replace Microsoft tools,” he says. “It’s a tough process.” But by mid-2007, he’s betting a Dow 30 customer breaks his way, he says.

Who’ll try it first? Leka bets that advertising companies, who want to share lots of media files with customers, are good candidates. A certain number of external Glide accounts (for use with groups like customers) will come with the package. You can brand these environments, so they look like your company’s online presence.

People love to throw around the term “Office-killer.” But nobody’s going to actually kill Microsoft Office. It will be with enterprise IT for years to come. Still, Glide provides another example of why CIOs are tuning into software as a service’s potential — to save money, while simultaneously offering users more power and flexibility to get their work done.

“Microsoft’s not going anywhere,” Leka says. “But you’re entering an era of new choices.”