Microsoft has never had a rival like Tesco. The supermarket giant has the size and the marketing pull to enter the consciousness of computer users as a serious alternative to Redmond's finest. But will people readily shell out for an office upgrade? After testing Tesco's product, we have some ideas.
The full version of this article appears in the January 07 issue of PC Advisor, onsale now in all good newsagents.
Mention office software and most of us assume you're referring to Microsoft's. Others can lay claim to coming up with the first office-productivity applications, but the software giant's Office suite has been the only one to register on the public consciousness for the past 10 years. Despite some alternatives – OpenOffice.org chief among them – receiving acclaim from techies, MS Office remains dominant among home PC users and businesses.
Microsoft claims 350 million people use Office, while the majority of those that don't use its stripped-down alternative, Works, instead. In short, as with Windows, Microsoft has had this particular portion of the PC market sewn up for a long time. That's partly due to the capabilities of Microsoft's software, partly to do with its ties with PC manufacturers and partly to do with a multi-million pound marketing budget. No-one else has ever had the global reach, the customer base and the clout to compete.
No one, that is, until Tesco made a move. The supermarket chain with stores, millions of customers and brand recognition aplenty, announced it would take on Microsoft in this highly lucrative market in October 2006. A range of titles is now on sale in 130 of its outlets, and they'll soon be available across the rest of the UK.
Tesco has launched six new products in total, each costing less than £20. The range caters for the vast majority of tasks that home users perform on a day-to-day basis and each product has been given a suitably straightforward name.
We've focused on two applications in Tesco's Complete Office suite – the word processor and the spreadsheet – to give an indication of how the newest entrant to the market shapes up. It's difficult to compare the entry-level Complete Office with Microsoft's powerful alternatives, but that's exactly what Tesco wants price-savvy PC users to do. The retailer claims its range brings choice and value to the market, arguing that current products have offered "little of either for too long".
What's on offer
But the Tesco range is not limited to Complete Office. There's also the Antivirus & Antispyware security bundle, a Personal Finance accountancy package, the music-copy and -burning tool Easy Record, Internet Security software (comprising a firewall, antiphishing, antispyware, antispam and web-content filtering) and the PhotoRestyle image editor.
The products are not developed by Tesco itself, of course. Each is based on software created by a developer with which you may be familiar. EasyRecord, for example, is 'powered by Sonic Solutions' according to the opening line of the installation manual, while the Complete Office package we looked at is based on Ability Software's Ability Office.
The world's biggest IT brand
Other software developers with grand ambitions to unseat Microsoft have failed to dent the dominance of the world's biggest IT brand, so why should Tesco be any different? Well, it's already a global operation that can rely on millions of UK customers on a weekly basis. Simply by placing the new software in its stores, it's guaranteed to be seen by potential customers. Many IT enthusiasts have been extolling the virtues of OpenOffice, but the man on the street is unlikely to have heard of the open-source alternative.
By contrast, Tesco has nearly 1,300 stores in the UK and accounts for one pound out of every eight spent by British consumers. And the entry-level users that Tesco's range targets are far more likely to visit their local supermarket than a specialist computer outlet such as PC World on a regular basis.
Microsoft does have an ace up its sleeve: the familiarity of its products. While it's common knowledge that you can get word processors and other day-to-day applications that cost far less than Microsoft Office, most of us opt for the familiarity of the programs we regularly use at work. But as you'll see from our reviews of the word-processing and spreadsheet products within the Tesco, Office, Works and OpenOffice suites, interfaces are broadly similar across different applications.
And while Microsoft has the benefit of 20 years experience and is the de facto standard for office software, Tesco is renowned as a supplier of attractively priced products. It now sells credit cards, insurance, DVDs and mobile phones, so the sudden arrival of software on the shelves is unlikely to puzzle customers.
But while there is a proven market for the security software, photo-editing tools and personal finance packages Tesco is now offering, how many people are likely to upgrade their office software? Either Microsoft Office or Works comes pre-installed on the vast majority of PCs, so what market is there for a new contender? Visitors to PCAdvisor.co.uk certainly weren't convinced about the need for an office suite upgrade according to a poll we ran during October. Two-thirds of you said you'd stick to your current office suite for the foreseeable future, with another tenth of you planning to upgrade to Office 2007.
A further 20 percent intended to install the free OpenOffice, while just 3 percent had earmarked Tesco's Complete Office as a purchase. Only 13 percent of the more-than 2,000 people who voted in our poll were prepared to pay money for an office suite upgrade.
However, executives at Formjet, which created a bespoke version of Ability Software's Office package as the backbone of Tesco's Complete Office, argue that it's about time Microsoft Office had some competition. With Office 2003 costing £300, Tesco's £20 alternative may seem a good choice for those who don't need a full set of features.
Few home and business users exploit Office's advanced capabilities. In fact, Microsoft has been criticised for forcing users to pay for high-end features they'll never use. If you need a word processor and a spreadsheet app that can perform a calculation or two, it's likely you could just as easily get by with a lower-priced alternative. It's worth checking out the competition before forking out for a pricey MS Office upgrade, particularly with Office 2007 just around the corner.