Is Office 365 cheaper than OpenOffice and open source?

"Give me a laundry list and I'll set it to music"quipped Gioacchino Rossini - but little did the legendary Pesaro-born composer know his own home town would be the subject of accusations of similar artistic interpretation with jazzed up marketing and PR rhetoric almost two centuries after writing his final opera William Tell.

Indeed, Microsoft's marketing team published a press release recently saying Office 365 is about 80% cheaper compared to the open source office suite, OpenOffice - with the figures stemming from reports in Italy and the City Council of Pesaro. The Redmond giant claims that to roll out Open Office, Pesaro incurred a one off cost of about €300,000 and had lots of problems with document formatting.

But equally how would you convince a public sector organisation to migrate to your cloud services instead of using 'expensive' open source software?

The obvious way would be to present a case study from a similar organisation together with a well written report commissioned to an "independent" consultancy firm. At this point your future customer has all the data and justifications required to sign on the dotted line.

And some journalists are now presenting this case as fact of Microsoft Office 365 being 80% more economical than open source alternatives.

I would argue that this is an isolated case and the PR efforts by big technology vendors, like many other methods, are being used to trick private and public organisations into signing contracts based on data or claims that may be not completely true.

While in this instance it happened in Pesaro on the Adriatic coast, it could have happened at a your council - and it could also happen with other vendors?

It is true that to implement a non-Microsoft Office Suite may generate some initial costs (off-set by the zero cost of licensing), that converting documents to an internationally recognised standard (ODF) instead of a proprietary one may require a bit of time and that training 600 users to use a non-ribbon-based Office Suite could lead to an initial loss of productivity but many think that €300K is way too much money for it.

And looking through the available documents, it turned out that actually the City Council of Pesaro didn't have to bear a cost of €300K for Open Office but Microsoft liked that figure and used it anyway to make their services look cheaper than open source.

During a brief interview, Pesaro's IT manager admitted that the costs have been put together by evaluating the time invested in training and to reformat documents for a "selected group of users" and then applied the same logic for all the users in the council.

From other articles seen around it seems like half of the employees had to spend up to 15 minutes a day sorting out formatting issues and that's apparently the bulk of the cost.

But then everything becomes clear.

As migrating to a new applications didn't seem challenging enough, Pesaro's IT manager thought it was a good idea to keep quite a few users that had to exchange and edit documents with others on Microsoft Office 97 while the rest used Open Office. And furthermore there were also some complex Excel spreadsheet that they didn't feel like converting and they also used Access, which should be banned for any use apart from managing your personal CD collection - a technology which itself should probably be banned!

The Council had also a well written project, provided by the company that assisted them with the initial deployment, which set out a clear plan for the migration and even the costs if they wanted to keep using Microsoft Office instead. Those costs are summarised in the graph below and include the migration to LibreOffice or Office 2013.

It probably would be the usual story of bad administration in a public sector organisation if it wasn't that Microsoft decided to use that €300K cost as a marketing stunt against open source.

But then it could be a useful example for all of us that shows how our public sector CIO could be tricked in signing up for services that do not deliver the promised savings and efficiencies.

Obviously much of the hype is now on mobility and "Smart Cities" but how many public sector employees really need a web-based version of Word or Excel that have a fraction of the features provided by the desktop version?

Probably not that many to justify the subscription to a cloud service that will cost a lot more taxpayers money than a properly-managed solution based on open source platforms like LibreOffice, which is about to release a web version that has all the features present on the desktop version.

Isn't it about time for the public sector to start questioning the claims made by big vendors and started planning beyond the short term? Open source may need initial investments, but that can pay off quite quickly but with cloud it's a montly and yearly cost for life.

Paolo Vecchi is CEO of open source specialists Omnis Systems

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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