Office essentials

PCR investigates the office software sector.
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Office software is vital. Everything from typing up a letter to doing the company accounts relies on it. So while hardware sales might be going down on the corporate side, it should be no surprise that software sales have remained fairly steady.

However, there is a wind of change in the air, as Microsoft Office product manager Darren Strange explains: "One of the most important trends in the marketplace at the moment is the emergence of Cloud Computing." Accountz' chairman Quentin Pain agrees: "There is a move towards SaaS (software as a service) in the office software market, with providers offering web-hosted software for a monthly/annual subscription charge."

There are some concerns about the new technology. "The worries that many businesses have with SaaS are about data security, access and the ability of the provider to increase the service charges once an organisation is committed to the software," explains Pain. "The issues involved with not having the application locally on a computer will probably kill SaaS in any data critical areas such as accountancy and sensitive areas such as customer privacy."

Microsoft is keen to ensure that those markets aren't left out. In November, the vendor's chief executive, Steve Ballmer, said that the firm was keen to ensure that Microsoft would be flexible to accommodate the needs of its partners' customers. It was echoed by Strange: "We've taken a different approach to some of our competitors. We feel it is important to offer our customers the choice of having the infrastructure for their office solution on site, in the cloud, or a combination of the two.

"Contrast that with some of our competitors, where the only option is to have it hosted somewhere off-site. It's solutions like that which make CEOs and other executives sweat under the collar, especially when it comes to companies where keeping records of files is a matter of law."

However, it isn't just 'The Cloud' that looks to be an area of change. "The largest growth area for Ability Office over the last six months has been 'netbooks,' due to our recent introduction of retail and OEM software delivered on USB drives," explains Ability Office's brand director Chris English. "The 'out-of-the-box' experience has lead many retailers to look for bundle solutions, which enable netbooks to be usable as soon as the customer gets home."

ATTACK OF THE CLONES
Recent years have seen a resurgent attack on Microsoft's comfy position astride the office software market. "We've seen a rise in the number of clones," says Strange. "It's a compliment, honestly. But to see this as a new trend would be a mistake. We've always had competitors forcing us to constantly innovate. Back in the 1990s, we had Lotus 1-2-3, and now we have competition from the likes of Open Office and Google Docs. The problem is, they're cloning versions of the likes of Word 1998 and 2003 – software that was designed for a totally different world."

Pain agrees, but believes that Microsoft is playing catch-up this time: "The take-up of suites such as Open Office and Google Docs is certainly making an impression. So much so that Microsoft is now changing its US model to a more online, subscription-based service." Despite that, he isn't so sure about their practicality. "Internet speed and even simple usability problems with web apps is proving a difficult mountain to climb. Whilst Google Docs is a free service (at the moment), if you need a serious, feature-based spreadsheet application, you are still probably going to settle for the likes of Excel."

It is a point that English echoes: "VARs began to look for an alternative solution in the office productivity sector when their introduction of SaaS into corporate departments produced increased visibility of licence usage, and lead to questions of just how many staff members actually make use of the full feature-set of MS Office applications. First this led to licensing of individual applications rather than full suites when it became clear most staff only ever use MS Word, or MS Excel, and Outlook, but more recently there's been focus on which users might have their requirements met by a value alternative to these applications."

However, Strange disagrees with the approach of splitting the packages up. "Much of what has kept Microsoft Office at the forefront of the office productivity market has the been the integrated nature of the product. Office is developed by the same team, so the guys who worked on Word will have also been involved in Excel – that benefits end users because the products have a level of integration and compatibility that other products on the market simply can't match."

But what impact has the increase in Apple hardware entering offices had upon the market? "The feedback we've had from our retail and reseller partners is that Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac is actually the easiest add-on sale when they sell a new Apple computer," Strange comments.

Pain says Accountz does well there too: "Accountz has seen a large take-up of Apple users choosing our accounting software. This is partly due to the evergrowing number of Apple-owned stores in the UK and the range of software titles now available from Apple Store and online. It is more than the creative business selecting to use Apple machines as the range of software available to support business has expanded a lot.

English ends on another note: "Looking a little way into the future, a user will be able to carry a small device wherever they go, containing their own personal 'virtual' desktop, complete with pre-installed office software, ready to use, safe and secure, on any PC."

Whichever way the future goes, it'll certainly be interesting getting there.

Microsoft Home and Student 2007
Distributor: Blue Solutions, Computer 2000, Gem, Ingram Micro, Micro-P, VIP
Ideal for the one man (or woman) office, Microsoft's Office Home and Student 2007 is great value and provides all of the packages required to run a home office. Includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Microsoft Office Small Business

Distributor: Blue Solutions, Computer 2000, Gem, Ingram Micro, Micro-P, VIP
Coming with one licence, this bundle has everything users need to prepare letters and manage finances. Includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Publisher.

Microsoft Office Professional 2007
Distributor: Blue Solutions, Computer 2000, Gem, Ingram Micro, Micro-P, VIP
Comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher and Access – this is the ultimate solution for any business looking to manage office productivity.

Microsoft Word

Distributor: Blue Solutions, Computer 2000, Gem, Ingram Micro, Micro-P, VIP
If your customer only needs a word processor, then Microsoft Word solus is an ideal solution. Comes with the features of the package version at a lower price.

Microsoft Excel

Distributor: Blue Solutions, Computer 2000, Gem, Ingram Micro, Micro-P, VIP
As with Word, Excel solus is ideal for when your customer only wants the one piece of software. It also has all the benefits of the version in the suite, at a fraction of the price.

Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac
Distributor: Blue Solutions, Computer 2000, Gem, Ingram Micro, Micro-P, VIP
Comes in Home and Student, and Standard Editions. This is perfect for companies that use Apple hardware, but need to have a full office productivity suite.

Accountz Business
Distributor: Open
Compatible with both Windows and OS X, Accountz has increased its exposure in the channel thanks to a solid product and word of mouth recommendations. It's designed for a wide range of businesses from large to small.

Accountz Personal
Distributor: Open
Personal Accountz is designed to make looking after household accounts really simple and fast, with views into the future to help users stay in control and plan for those little (or large) things they really need.

ASI Ability Accounts
Distributor: Blue Solutions, Micro P, Northamber, PC Indie
The easy-to-use accounting solution designed specifically for small and start-up businesses, enabling accounts and financial work to be done quickly and easily.

Accountz Office
Distributor: Blue Solutions, Micro P, Northamber, PC Indie
Ability Office Business offers seven fully featured applications in an office suite that's compatible with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Photoshop, but much cheaper.

Sage 50

Distributor: SJ Software
Sage 50 Accounts 2009 is packed with features to help keep businesses organised and ensure everyone gets paid on time. It also helps to manage other day-to-day finances – everything from VAT returns to year-end accounts.

Sage ACT!

Distributor: SJ Software
ACT! is the world's best selling Contact Manager with over four million users worldwide. Manage all your customers and contacts effectively and efficiently using the latest version of ACT!

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