UK Government to drop Microsoft Office?

Moving from MS Office will be harder than politicians think.

A Cabinet Minister in the UK government spoke openly this week about dropping Microsoft Office and switching to open source alternatives.

Naturally, The Rt Hon Francis Maude MP was more discreet than that, in fact he said “It’s not about banning any one product …”. The bottom line can only be a move to reduce costs like the reported £200 million (US$322 million) spent by the UK government on MS Office over the last three years.

Mr Maude speaks of “a small oligopoly of IT suppliers”, another indirect reference to Microsoft.

He rightly identifies that having the choice of office suite software firstly needs support for document formats beyond Microsoft’s own, mostly proprietary, formats.

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Once an organization supports OpenDocument format either instead of or alongside with Microsoft’s proprietary formats, they can choose different word-processing, spreadsheet or presentation software.

You can be sure that Microsoft’s UK office will be all over this. The full armory of sales, support and political lobbying will be brought to stopping anything that threatens such a large influx of cash. That’s to say nothing of the effect that common use of OpenDocument files might have beyond the UK government.

But the main forces working against a switch from Microsoft Office are already in place. Over many years and versions of Office, Microsoft has entangled the software with proprietary links to Windows server, SharePoint and Exchange Server. Some features of Word, Excel and PowerPoint only work if you use Microsoft’s own document formats.

There are also changeover costs. You have to uninstall Office on thousands of computers, install the new software, train staff on that new software and convert existing documents to the open format. The training is a big expense since most people are familiar with Microsoft Office and will have to learn fairly different software.

In short, it’s not as simple as uninstalling Microsoft Office and installing other software. Changing to non-proprietary document standards is a good start.

All this may just be a negotiating tactic. A strategy to get a better deal from Microsoft for the next Microsoft Office Volume Licence.