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As Microsoft preps another version of its Office productivity suite, a small group of software vendors waits for an opening in the competitive landscape. However, analysts suggest that the greatest competition to Microsoft’s updated software remains older versions of Office.

According to sources, Microsoft Corp. is briefing selected partners and customers about the forthcoming family of Office desktop and server products. Office 12, the next version of the suite that will break the previous year-centric naming scheme, is due to arrive on shelves in summer 2006.

But in today’s market, the primary alternatives to Microsoft Office 2003 are Corel Corp.‘s WordPerfect Office 12, along with‘s OpenOffice and Sun Microsystems Inc.’s StarOffice, both of which share the same code base.

“WordPerfect Office still has a very loyal following in medium-sized enterprise and government,” said Michael Silver, vice president at Gartner Inc., of Stamford, Conn.

According to Corel, WordPerfect Office sports an installed base of some 20 million users, many found in the legal professions. The company recently offered a Legal Quick Start bundle, a package comprising WordPerfect Office 12, a set of legal templates and Gavel & Gown Software Inc.’s Amicus Attorney law practice management software.

Click here to read more about WordPerfect Office 12.

Recently celebrating its fourth birthday, the open-source OpenOffice also seeks a place in the market as a productivity solution and platform. Advocates often consider the Linux package as going hand-in-hand with Mozilla’s browser and e-mail client. A number of governmental agencies and businesses have switched from Office and adopted the package, especially in Europe.

How does Microsoft’s Office 2003 stack up against Click here for comprehensive reviews of each suite.

Meanwhile, eWEEK Labs found many positive features in Sun’s StarOffice 7 productivity suite, calling it a “capable cross-platform alternative to Microsoft Office that comes at a price too attractive for enterprises to ignore.” While the user interface is different in many ways, the software “exhibited strong support” for Office’s file formats, the reviewers said.

Read more here of the StarOffice 7 review.

While calling StarOffice and OpenOffice “viable products,” analyst Silver said support, training and compatibility issues will constrain their widespread adoption. He said adoption is currently found in isolated departments or divisions of large enterprises, such as call centers, where the flow of documents is relatively confined.

Next Page: The luxury of a single software stack.

Though the Office competition has improved compatibility issues, there’s often a need for some people in an organization to use Excel macros, password-protected documents or Access databases. Many IT managers prefer an “all-or-nothing solution” instead of supporting dual packages, he said.

“It’s been a luxury to have the same software stack for all these years,” Silver said. “Classifying users and giving different software to some [users] than to others is scary to managers. And it definitely requires more overhead. It’s much easier to give everyone the same stuff.”

But the greatest competition to the current Microsoft Office 2003 are older versions of Office still in use in many enterprises, Silver said.

For example, he pointed to an ad hoc survey taken at a recent Gartner conference, where about 15 percent of enterprise customers reported using Office 97, even though the software has been orphaned by Microsoft and suffers from a growing list of security issues.

“To Microsoft’s dismay, Office 97 didn’t stop working when they stopped supporting it,” Silver said. “Since Office 2000, companies have moved very slowly to upgrade, although Office 2003 has an appeal for mobile workers.”

According to Silver, about 45 percent of larger enterprises are still using Office 2000, with less than 10 percent using the current Office 2003. He expects a greater shift to Office 2003 in 2005.

Silver said more interest in StarOffice and OpenOffice could be sparked when customers now running Office 2000 decide to upgrade. He also suggested that enterprises will be more interested when their existing Software Assurance contracts expire.

“In the Longhorn time frame, when older versions look really old, that will be an opportunity for Sun or to pick up some market share,” he said.

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