Microsoft’s pay-as-you-go service misses the point

So Microsoft has announced a pay-as-you-go option for emerging markets, ostensibly to make Office 2007 more affordable to people in these markets. This option is only available to people who buy new computers (now with Windows Vista) and costs R199 for the first three months with first time users to receive an additional 3 months free. Compared to the cost of Office 2007 off the shelf at your local computer store, this is a pretty decent deal considering it would take around 2 years before a subscription amounts to the cost of a copy of Office 2007 Standard Edition off the shelf (which I priced at roughly R4 400). Of course if the subscription continues after 2 years the user will wind up paying more than if he/she saved up and bought a copy from the store.

Now in a world with more options than just Microsoft Office 2007 running on Windows Vista, this sort of offer, while cute, is pointless at best and insulting at worst for Microsoft. There is alternative to Microsoft Office for the emerging and most other markets that costs the time it takes to install on a computer running Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X or Linux and it is called OpenOffice (at the moment a Mac version called NeoOffice is probably a better bet for the Mac). OpenOffice/NeoOffice is free (as in the hypothetical free beer) and you can make as many copies as you want and install it on as many computers as you want (both new and old) without fear of some large multinational jumping on you for some form of IP infringement. Best of all, OpenOffice/NeoOffice (and a veritable shopping list of other applications) support the Open Document Format which is both a truly open source document format (and therefore doesn’t lock users in to proprietary software) and a certified ISO standard document format.

While Office 2007 is really good software and has features that power users really need (I believe) and which OpenOffice/NeoOffice don’t provide (apparently), its native format is Office Open XML which is a candidate for certification as an ISO standard in a couple months time. Although Microsoft suffered a recent set back when a subcommittee I sat on as a representative of The African Commons Project recommended a “disapprove” vote by South Africa (in other words, a “no” vote) the process is not yet over. If Microsoft’s application is rejected it will be a tremendous victory for the open source community and for the Open Document Format as the preferred document format for the developing world.

One thing for sure is that if you consider what users in the emerging market may require from an office suite and the available options, this new subscription model seems to be either a desparate move to lock new users in to a proprietary platform and document format or a pretty sneaky attempt to achieve the same result in anticipation of the ISO vote.

My suggestion is to take a close look at OpenOffice/NeoOffice for yourself and consider whether these office suites cover your needs. If they do, perhaps it is time to put Microsoft Office to one side and try a free and pretty well developed alternative for a while. I have been using NeoOffice on my Mac for the last week or so and I don’t miss Microsoft Office. I am beginning to doubt I will go back to it. What do you think you will do?

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