The Other Side

Published Date
01 - Feb - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Feb - 2005
 
The Other Side
Microsoft is the undisputed leader in office suites, and MS Office is the de facto standard when it comes to choosing an office software package. For those who came in late, alternatives exist. And they are cheaper too! One such alternative is StarOffice-Sun Microsystems' offering for the office environment, priced much lower than MS Office.

As the chief technology or information officer of your company, you might wonder about using something like StarOffice instead of MS Office, given the 'unknown' aura surrounding it. So we decided to learn more about it, and investigated if any corporate setup was implementing it.

We came across Apnaloan.com. Apnaloan.com is a leading mediator for financial products in the form of loans, insurance and credit cards, to name a few. Amongst the four first-generation entrepreneurs who founded apnaloan.com is Parag Patankar, chief information officer and director, Insurance. An IIM Ahmedabad alumnus and an engineer from IIT Kanpur, he spent two years at the Project Finance Division of ICICI Ltd before moving to Corporate Banking in ICICI Bank where he spent three-and-a-half years in various capacities. We decided to find out from him what it's like to use StarOffice and MS Office in tandem.

It's All About The Money...
Apnaloan.com started in 2000 with the traditional MS-based Office Productivity environment. It was not until 2003 that they started looking at alternatives, mainly from a cost perspective. The licensing cost for MS Office is around Rs 8,000 per license for the Small Business Edition, while the Professional Edition retails at around Rs 12,000. In contrast, StarOffice 7 retails for $60 (approximately Rs 2,700) per license when purchased in a 25-user pack for SMEs.

Before implementing it on a large scale, Apnaloan.com evaluated both StarOffice and Open Office-and decided to introduce StarOffice in the organisation in late 2003. It's been a year already, and Aplaloan.com now uses a combination of both.


There has been a saving in licensing costs that outweighs the incremental cost in training or re-training
Parag Patankar, CIO and director, Insurance, Apnaloan.com

But the question is, why use MS Office at all if you are migrating to StarOffice? Patankar answers that even if Apnaloan.com uses StarOffice, many of its customers, business partners and associates continue to use MS Office. There are still some compatibility issues with opening and importing MS Office documents in StarOffice and vice-versa. Hence, there is a need to maintain MS Office for external communication. Also, when the transition from MS Office to StarOffice was done, Apnaloan.com already had licenses for MS Office, and it made sense to continue to use the existing licenses and only add StarOffice incrementally.

Resistance To Change
If one were to consider pure functionality, StarOffice is similar to MS Office, give or take a few features. However, when looking at deployment, Apnaloan.com had to consider several issues.

First, a significant re-training effort was required-even though the overall functionality is similar, the user interfaces and the way menus and functions are used is different in StarOffice. More than the re-training, overcoming user resistance to change was a stumbling block. People were used to working with MS Office and it was difficult to make them abandon the comfort level they enjoyed.

"Almost all training was done on-site. We subsequently set up a small StarOffice migration-cum-support team in-house, whose members developed more expertise through self-study and by resolving user issues through research. This was documented and used in subsequent training. The focus was on identifying the issues faced by users during the transition and providing solutions to these problems," informs Patankar.

The Switchover 
Understanding the differences between StarOffice software and Microsoft Office will help you anticipate the key challenges involved and determine the best migration option for existing documents, templates and business applications. Depending on the complexity and value of existing files or custom solutions, the options range from archiving to converting to re-engineering source code.

The main steps of the process are:
  • MS Office documents and templates must be converted to the StarOffice software file format.
  • Existing scripting and custom solutions must be migrated.
  • Current business rules and processes may have to be adjusted to take full advantage of StarOffice 7 Office Suite features.
  • In addition, key architectural differences between these two application suites can affect the way they process and store information and data.However, because the suites also share many similarities, it is possible to make the switchover nearly transparent to most users.
Extracted from the whitepaper entitled 'Migrating to StarOffice Software from Microsoft Office', available at www.sun.com/software/whitepapers/staroffice/SO7Migration_wp.pdf

Apnaloan.com now stores its information in both formats. Moreover, since many of its customers, vendors and business partners continue to work with MS Office, the challenge was to internally work on a new environment,but make it seamless with respect to external communications. Naturally, this took some time to stabilise.

Compatibility Issues
"When migrating from one environment to another, compatibility issues are to be expected," says Patankar. While StarOffice allows one to save files in MS formats, retrieval of those files within the MS Office environment, at times, results in changes in templates, text and graphics. Also, when a file stored in MS Office is opened in the StarOffice environment through the 'Import' option, there were issues, particularly with Excel Sheets containing Pivot Tables, Macros and Graphs and with PowerPoint files containing embedded worksheets or graphics. Some of these issues are as yet unresolved, although there is a clearer understanding of the problems.

So how comfortable are users with StarOffice now? "Users who have started using StarOffice from day one have no issues. However, people who have shifted from MS Office to StarOffice sometimes feel that MS Office is easier for certain functions, though, they have now adapted to StarOffice," says Patankar.

He adds, "Apart from productivity software, e-mail is a way of life in organisations and people are comfortable with the MS Outlook e-mail client since some features in it are not yet available with third-party mail clients. One can use Netscape or Mozilla with StarOffice but there are limitations with these clients. For instance, options such as 'Calendar' or 'Scheduling' are not available with Netscape and those who are used to these have taken it for granted and find it difficult to adjust without them.

"Such issues need to be resolved before alternatives to MS Office can become really popular. I also expect organisations to start evaluating Linux-based Office productivity applications as they become more mature," Patankar states.

So Should You, Or Shouldn't You?
So would Patankar recommend StarOffice to other, similar organisations? "They should certainly use it for people who primarily need to work on documents. However, for heavy users of presentations and/or spreadsheets, there is a fair amount of re-training that will be required and organisations should factor that cost into the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) computation," says Patankar.

At the end of the day, though, Patankar feels that there has certainly been some cost saving. "There has been a saving in licensing costs that outweighs the incremental cost in training or re-training. Also, the benefits will further increase as the knowledge base has grown sufficiently, and the incremental training effort and cost would be lower as compared to the initial cost."


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