‘Home-grown’ cost-effective Office solutions are all set to give the one from Microsoft a run for its money
“Let’s say a new employee has joined your organisation. The cost of setting up hardware will be between Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. Microsoft licensing will cost around Rs 12,000 to Rs 13,000 for MS Office and about Rs 3,000 for MS Windows. So, the total cost is around Rs 40,000. But with Emergic, the cost is Rs 10,000 for the hardware, and Rs 3,000 for the software.” That’s Kalpit Jain, Vice-President, Technology, for Netcore Solutions, a Mumbai-based software company. And his USP seems to be the prime mantra for a new clutch of entrepreneurial ventures in the Indian software market. Welcome to the desi Davids gearing up to take on multinational Goliaths, and making no bones about
The Business Requires...
For the average business, the requirements seem to be clear and concise: the software should not only be efficient, but relatively error-free as well. Documents should be portable, if required to be opened on other applications, there should be good after sales support, and last—but not the least—it should be affordable.
Existing solutions in the office space are almost exclusively multinational. A huge chunk of the office software market is controlled by Microsoft with their redoubtable Office suite. Other players include Corel, OpenOffice.org, and to a lesser extent, Open Source products such as KOffice. These solutions are expensive, other than the occasional Open Source product, as Kalpit points out. A single MS Office user-licence costs Rs 13,000—quite out of the realm of consideration for a small business. Even if it can be afforded, the worth of the investment remains questionable: After you buy it, and you are based in, say, Chhindwara, what do you do if it crashes a day before the all-important meeting?
The other issue of concern is that of language. “According to studies, only five to eight per cent of the entire population in our country is English-language-literate”, says Meena R Joshi, Technical Director, Modular InfoTech Pvt Ltd. Modular is a software development company that is based in Pune and engages itself in development of multilingual office software. For her, the market lies in the huge, untapped hinterland of regional or bilingual office work.
The Options Available
Emergic has three Linux-based products for the SME segment: Netcore Emergic Mail server, Emergic Cleanmail and Emergic Freedom. Of these, Emergic Cleanmail is a mail-filtering solution with a set of unique features such as triple-virus screening and detailed reports. The Mail server bundles serious, industry-grade features such as an inbuilt firewall, proxy server, an anti-virus and remote, browser-based administration. It also includes features such as VPN/bandwidth management too. Incorporated in 2003, the bandwidth management feature enables mail administrators to distribute available bandwidth among employees according to their requirement, or company policy.
Emergic Freedom is Netcore’s implementation of their ‘affordable computing’ mantra. This is achieved by using Linux-based, diskless, low-cost computers as full-fledged desktop “thin clients” connected via LAN or Broadband to centralised processing on “thick servers” to simplify management and provide a virus-free operating environment. As Alok Ladsariya, Senior Software Developer, Netcore points out,“A day will come when ISPs in India will understand that expanding broadband here in India is more profitable than providing connection to foreign agencies. There, they need to pay for connectivity.”
Built upon an open-source software base to provide a low-cost, high-performance,application-rich, Windows and MS Office-compatible desktop software suite, Emergic Freedom is an affordable solution for small businesses at Rs 3,500 per user licence.
Shakti Office, developed by CK Technologies, Chennai is an affordable, multilingual alternative to MS office. It comes in two languages: English and Hindi. In Hindi mode, it shows menus and options in Hindi. It may not be as powerful, but treads the same line of work as MS Office and offers good functionality across all its seven components- Access, Calc, Draw, Mail, Net, Show and Write and an excellent Hindi text spell check option (See “Face Off” on page 170). Compatibility issues with PowerPoint, though is a problem. Translation and transliteration from English to supported Indian languages work fine and error-free. It has good support for Hindi typing and offers ease of use, for long a concern with affordable Indian office solution.
Ankur Office, ‘a complete multilingual office suite’ developed by Modular InfoTech of Pune is another possible solution for the poor man’s paperless office. Available in Assamese, Bengali, Gujrati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu and English, this package is as close as it can be to the true multilingual office software solution.
Apart from features such as spell-check for all eight languages, Ankur Office also provides functionalities such as native keyboard support and localization: Help, Manual, Screens, Menu, Hints and alert messages are available in Indian languages as well.
Portability Blues: Downside Or Upside?
Compatibility issues plague indigenously developed software by the dozen. It is not just enough for an establishment to deploy a regional language software or e-mail client. It needs to ensure that e-mails written in these regional languages or typed in bilingual formats are readable in other software.
|Highlights Of An Office Alternative|
What Microsoft can afford to do in a monopolistic market cannot be followed by other competitors who aim to grab the regional language, or the low-end office application software market. Proprietary file formats are essential to provide software-specific features such as linking and embedding of graphical objects that are portable across platforms and software.
In a market such as India, Open Source has already had a headstart with governments and other organisations rapidly moving towards at least partial adoption of various Open Source products. The issue of ensuring compatibility therefore has the ominous makings of turning into a veritable nightmare for entrepreneurs who hope to grab the as yet untapped portions of a potentially unlimited market. Both CK Technologies and Modular InfoTech, however, claim to have solved the problem at least as far as font portability over e-mail is concerned.
It is, however, true that companies use continual innovation and support to deal with the lack of compatibility or portability. Netcore has an exclusive, 9 am to 9 pm support team of 15 engineers armed with mobile phones. Kalpit says that it is actually possible for them to provide remote support because they are using a Linux-based technology. Other than that, all Netcore products come with a utility-assisted backup application. For their Mailserver and Freedom software, Netcore provides training for EDP and IT managers for client companies. The training cost is included in the software cost.
CK Technlogies is in the process of revamping their entire support process, currently based on e-mail and telephone support. By October, says Vinod Reddy of CK Tech, they intend to have a proper help-desk in place, handling calls from all parts of the country, irrespective of the language callers may speak. This will be supplemented by a revamped Web site, which will have comprehensive documentation of its software in the market.
Shakti Office plainly follows conventions... that MS Office
exhibits, and so does Ankur Office
Modular InfoTech has an e-mail and telephone call-based support system, besides arranging corporate training sessions and sending support executives over, which is charged accordingly.
|Highlights Of An Office Alternative|
|Netcore Emergic Cleanmail|
That Netcore uses the Fedora core 1 for its Freedom and MailServer software, which means that they conform to a certain Open Source standard that is globally gaining acceptance. Given a suitable period of gestation, it can attain the level of standardisation, which will enable it to port and share its application across software or platforms that conform to that yardstick. Shakti Office plainly follows conventions and menu layouts that MS Office exhibits, and so does Ankur Office. The Microsoft imprint in form of various WYSIWYG tools is clear on screen.
It is not a drawback of such software, though, that they make use of the practicalities shown by Microsoft and other software makers in their products. As Manoj Russel, MD, CK Technologies acknowledges, “It (Shakti Office) does not claim to be an equal of MS Office. However, we ensure that it doesn’t come with bloatware!”
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|Shakti Office 1.72|
It is just an acknowledgement of market realities. The main clientele of all the three companies are government offices, schools and other educational institutions, insurance companies and Public Sector Undertakings. Though all of them have corporate customers, it is still too early to think of them challenging the kind of turnover that even the Indian wings of multinational software companies churn in.
The Rural Business Suite
Once affordable broadband becomes a reality in India, a hundred different solutions can crop up from its hinterland, and these entrepreneurs are well on their way to use that carrier to increase PC penetration in India from its current 3 per cent.
This is what all three manufacturers tacitly agree on. “We are convinced that if IT has to reach the masses, it can only be through the use of local languages on computers. Considering the above, we decided to develop a software which is equally powerful and much more user-friendly than multinational English software and which will give you the pleasure of working in Indian languages rather than in English,” says Joshi, Technical Director, Modular InfoTech.
Once the hinterland is irrigated, a billion different flowers can bloom. Computer literacy can then, seriously, give functional literacy a challenge. Whether it is a mining contractor in Jharkhand, or a date palm grower in Kerala, a paperless office does have the promise of being a working reality, and not just a pretty machine sitting in the corner challenging you to Solitaire.