Microsoft Office market grip loosens as the cost of free drops

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

How much more popular do the descendants of OpenOffice need to be before they reache a tipping point? That is, the point at which open source productivity apps tip Microsoft Office into a terminal downhill market share slide.

The answer is not much. The Apache Software Foundation says that its child – Apache OpenOffice – has been downloaded more than 100 million times. That doesn’t represent the size of the user base by a long shot – the figure would include downloads of updates and browsing by the curious – but it’s not unreasonable to think it’s somewhere in the tens of millions range, albeit at the lower end.

LibreOffice also likely falls into that ball park. Its backers claim to have cornered the Linux market and report similar figures for full scale downloads and updates. The (distant) third sibling is NeoOffice, which is specifically for the Mac platform, and trails the other two in its development cycle.

Microsoft, on the other hand, claims that more than 1 billion people use MS Office – or, as it puts it, “1 in 7 people on the planet”. If you apply the same hype discount, its user base is probably somewhere in the hundreds of millions range.

That’s something like 10 times the combined market share of the OpenOffice family, not an insurmountable lead in a world where an order of magnitude improvement could be just clicks away.

The OpenOffice clan is functional and friendly enough to work for most MS Office users. Inertia is the last, big barrier to adoption, but progressively smoother interfaces are easing the learning curve for users and the continuing growth of thin client architectures in enterprises lower the work load for admins. Open source software is not free: it takes work to install and support it. But that cost is coming down.

The tipping point might not be that far away.