Office 2011: Who needs a suite?

For years, the default way to buy office applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation applications has been as part of a suite such as Microsoft Office. But, in this day and age, does that still make sense? Is there really added value in buying an integrated collection of productivity apps, or would it make more sense to pick and choose individual programs, regardless of vendor?

I’ve been wondering about those questions because of the recent release of Microsoft Office 2011. But that suite is just one of many you can run on OS X. You could ask the same about commercial alternatives such as Apple’s iWork, Oracle Open Office, MarinerPak, OpenOSX Office, and ThinkFreeOffice, or about free suites such as IBM Lotus Symphony, the open-source OpenOffice.org, and its close cousin NeoOffice. And let’s not forget Web application suites, including Google Docs, Microsoft’s own Office Web Apps, and Zoho.

There are several common arguments in favor of a suite: file compatibility, the integration of apps, the consistency of the interface, cost-effectiveness, and simple convenience. But do those arguments still work?

File Compatibility

Let’s stipulate that Microsoft’s file formats are the de facto standards, and that any competing program must be able to read (and preferably write) files in those formats. As it turns out, that’s almost universally true: All the suites mentioned above can read Microsoft’s .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats, and all but MarinerPak can write to those formats too. Support for Microsoft’s newer XML formats—.docx, .xlsx, and .pptx—is slightly less widespread. Most competing programs can open those files, but not all of them can write to them.

Also, third-party applications may not support all the features of their Office counterparts, in which case some documents won’t survive the round-trip from one app to another with perfect fidelity.

But file compatibility isn’t a decisive factor in the suite-or-not argument. The fact that you need to read and write Word files, for example, is at best an argument for buying Word; it’s not an argument for buying Microsoft Office.

Integration

Suite-makers tout the advantages of integration, such as having your word processor intimately connected to your spreadsheet and presentation apps. Microsoft Office, for example, has proprietary hooks—such as OLE and Visual Basic for Applications—that let suite components interact with each other more closely than they can with third-party products.

But I’m not convinced that’s a compelling argument in favor of suites. I use Word and Excel every day, yet I never take advantage of their integration. If your work frequently requires you to, say, embed spreadsheets in word processing documents and charts in presentations, then the integration of a suite could be meaningful. But I’d wager only a tiny percentage of users fall into that category. The rest of us use each application separately, just as we would if they weren’t part of a suite.

Consistency

Suite developers work hard to make sure that their applications have a similar look and feel. That seems logical: learn to use one and to a great extent you’ve learned them all.

But there’s a slightly sinister subtext to this: Once you’ve grown accustomed to a specific user interface, anything that’s different might feel wrong; that could subtly pressure you to stick with one company’s products. This is particularly true of Microsoft Office, which has always strayed from Mac OS interface conventions more than its peers. For better or worse, the addition of the proprietary Ribbon in Office 2011 continues this trend.

Less-sophisticated users are apt to find it easier to learn One Way of doing things. But to anybody who isn’t a Mac neophyte and who regularly switches among many different apps from many different vendors, such consistency won’t mean much.

Cost

The formula for pricing an office suite has always been: Make the package a little less expensive than any two individual applications. For example, Microsoft Office for Mac Home and Business 2011 retails for $199, but you can buy Word, Excel, or PowerPoint individually for $119 each. (Outlook isn’t available to individuals as a separate purchase.)

That pricing is shrewd. If you’re thinking about buying just one application in a given suite, you’ll probably feel you’re getting more for your money if you shell out for the whole package—regardless of whether or not you’re going to use the other apps. Some suites (including iWork) are available only as bundles; your only decision then is whether or not the one application you want is worth the price of the full package.

Convenience

True, it’s easier to buy one product than several. For an individual, a couple of extra purchases may not matter, but for businesses with many users, it can become more complicated. And, if you’re an IT person charged with supporting dozens or hundreds of users, having fewer (and more similar) applications to install, upgrade, and answer questions about is a very good thing. So in this case, suites make some sense.

The Bottom Line

Weighing the factors above, it’s apparent that a suite is the most economical choice if you need at least two of its component tools. Suites also make sense if you really do rely on their integration of features, if you find it confusing to switch among user interfaces, or if you’re buying for a company and want to minimize the burden of support. Combine those conditions, and you have a lot of people for whom suites really are the best way to buy office software.

Needless to say, owning a suite doesn’t mean you have to use (or even install) all of its components. And nothing prevents you from using a stand-alone application that isn’t in your suite of choice, or a free Web application or even a second suite, if one of those suits your needs better for a particular job.

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