Escaping Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office is the king of productivity suites. And when a new version comes out, as it will in the next few months (thanks to the just-released Windows 7), many of us will feel compelled to upgrade. But do you really need to spend $240 or more to handle your word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation chores? Well, no. A number of alternatives cost less, do nearly everything (and in some cases more than) Office does, and, most important, are compatible with your existing Office documents and can be read and edited by people still clinging to Microsoft products.

I've found three alternatives worth considering. Two run on your desktop and look and feel much like Microsoft's suite: OpenOffice, which is free, and SoftMaker Office, at $79.95 for up to three users. Overall, they're quite similar to Office, but some of the pull-down menus are a bit different, and some of the functions have different names. The third alternative is Zoho. Like the better known Google Docs, it runs on the Internet. I've picked Zoho over Google because it does much more and is amazingly fast. Moving your Office chores to the Web, however, is a pretty big leap.

With the help of Randall Kennedy, a technology consultant and InfoWorld columnist, I've tested all three suites for compatibility with Microsoft Word and Excel by creating some fairly complex documents and importing them into the corresponding alternative applications. All three did well on simple documents, doing a faithful job rendering graphics and tricky text formatting. On more complicated ones, though, SoftMaker Office really stood out. If you link your spreadsheets to external data on a server, neither OpenOffice nor SoftMaker will be able to retrieve it. I didn't test this, but Zoho says it has this capability.

OpenOffice is open-source, which means it benefits from enhancements made by a large network of tech-savvy users. In addition to word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation packages, OpenOffice includes graphics and database applications. It is not currently compatible with Windows 7, but it is free and available to download.

SoftMaker Office, made by a small German company, includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. It's so small it can be downloaded and run from a USB drive. And you can negotiate the price for additional user licenses. SoftMaker is compatible with Windows 7.

Zoho's office suite includes the usual word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications, plus an online organizer and "notebook," which lets you collect bits and pieces of Web content in one place without leaving your browser. Zoho Office is free for up to 10 users and $19 a month for each additional seat.

Zoho's claim to fame is that its applications run on the Web. The look is noticeably different from Office's familiar drop-down menus, but it's easy enough to figure out. A Zoho server stores your documents online. You can save versions to your hard drive and read or edit them offline, but functions such as spellcheck are available only online. Because much of the heavy lifting needed to run the applications is performed by Zoho's server, Zoho can run on low-power PCs and netbooks that could never handle a full-blown productivity suite.

Any of these suites can be tried for free, so just pick one and play with it. If it's just too strange for your Office-conditioned fingers, you haven't lost much. But if it does fit the bill, you've saved hundreds of dollars.

Return to the BWSmallBiz December 2009/January 2010 Table of Contents

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