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Tesco to sell software

Tesco adds software to its line-up

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I love a company which is determined to fight everyone and anyone for some market share and margin, but Tesco has really impressed today with its assault on Microsoft’s dominance of the ‘office software’ model. The BBC is reporting that it will be selling budget own-brand office software, competing with Microsoft Office.

Tesco have decided to offer a re-badged version of Formjet‘s Ability Plus software. This software has been around, in several guises, since the DOS days of 1985 (it debuted apparently as a free trial CD on the cover of PC World magazine). The software has moved on from then but still sports a rather dated interface (as in ‘MS Office Last Year’).

The three big questions for customers buying office software are:
* Price – anything cheaper than the headline £400 for MS Office Professional looks attractive
* compatibility – no-one wants to head down a blind alley and be unable to communicate with the rest of the (Microsoft) world
* support – anything off the beaten track must be very well supported.

Looking at each of these in turn the attractiveness of TescoOffice2004 [tm, etc] is not entirely obvious.

Of course MS Office can be expensive, but you can always steal it (which of course we at IR Towers would never condone – we simply report this as an option!). You can also get the software for £60 if you’re a student. There’s also a thriving second-hand market for fully-licenced software. While you’d wonder why people would want an old version of Office, you could argue that the TescoOffice is effectively a clone of the older versions anyway. Furthermore, backwards compatibility and the overkill of the total feature set mean that older versions are just dandy for the vast majority of users.

In a sideswipe at large corporates it’s also worth noting that very few large companies are on the latest versions of Office anyway. The investment in patching, customising, training and supporting thousands of users is immense and they take a very sceptical view of the productivity enhancements in new versions. This forms an additional reason for customers to be wary with their own money – they may as well use the same software that they use at work…

Compatibility is another big issue. At IR Towers we are a mixed shop in that the majority have PCs, but we also allow Mac users through the door and our IT person has “Unix” tattooed onto his be-sandalled toes. We understand the difficulties of file compatibility and have working practices that minimise problems. It’s going to be awkward for ‘normal users’ however to find that attachments sent to Aunty Mabel do not display correctly. Ability claim that compatibility is total, but there are comments on internet discussion groups and reviews of some issues with tables and Excel. These are probably minor or irrelevant to most users – however confidence is a fragile thing and any upsets can damage their confidence in the application.

Support is the final Big Issue and there’s no word (no pun intended) at present on how this will be handled.

I’m slightly surprised that Tesco has not opted to package the excellent OpenOffice as its own. OpenOffice is open source software and is multilingual and multiplatform (not just PCs, but Mac and Unix too). The StarOffice version is commercial-grade and comes with manuals and support and would have been an interesting choice for the retailing giant.

It remains to be seen whether Tesco will add PCs to its lineup of new products and – if so – whether they will come without MS Windows. That would be a news story!

In the meantime we can cross off yet another retail sector that’s escaped Tesco’s attentions, while also sympathising with the folk at Tesco’s contact centre – training staff there on how to answer questions on office software productivity!

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