What's it worth to you?

At what point does it make more sense to pay $200 for desktop software rather than $20 for a competing product?

The numbers are not exact, but that essentially is the question the Marine Corps must answer, having landed in the crossfire between Lotus Development Corp. and Microsoft Corp.

A reseller sparked the cost debate by offering Lotus SmartSuite at about one-tenth the price of Microsoft's Office 2000 package, as a way to sway the Corps from its decision to make Office 2000 its de facto standard for word processing, spreadsheets and other software. The offer is good governmentwide.

In office automation, $20 is practically a giveaway. Unfortunately, even a giveaway is not the no-brainer it would appear to be.

Many federal users, and in some cases entire departments, settled on their desktop software several years ago, based on the capabilities and the cost of the products at that time. These users and their support staff have invested a lot of time and money learning the features and foibles of their products. And they have created hundreds of thousands of documents that are now part of agency records.

So the question for them is, What is it worth to an agency to pull up that stake and go through that process with another product?

It's not just a concern about raising the ire of PC users, who tend to develop a strong loyalty for whatever software already resides on their desktop. It is concern about productivity. For some agencies, the new product would have to be a significant improvement to justify retraining users and converting files. In the final analysis, it becomes a matter of how an agency defines best value when it comes to office automation.

Best value is difficult to define in the best of circumstances. This case, the latest skirmish between Lotus and Microsoft, involves a significant cost disparity and a huge volume of business. That only complicates the question of best value for the Marines.

Given the millions of dollars spent each year on office automation software, the rest of DOD, as well as many civilian agencies, will be listening to see how the Corps answers.

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