Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Microsoft Office Alternative: Open Office

In recent weeks, I've heard a lot of complaints regarding the Microsoft Office productivity suite-not regarding features, but on cost. Office is an amazing set of products. I truly believe Excel and Outlook are great software. However, outfitting each computer at a small business with $400 worth of software starts to weigh on the finances.

I'm a big fan of capitalism and haven't yet come to terms with the economics of open source software (OSS) or freely available software. Software (and any media producer for that matter) firms should be able to charge a fair price for the tools they create. Microsoft is one of the great success stories of our time and Office is a large contributor to their current market position. That's capitalism!

This is easy to swallow when some large company is footing the bill. However, at home or in the small business, $400 seems a bit much. One friend astutely pointed out, "That's almost more than I paid for the damn computer!" That's why I think it's time to publicize an alternative to Microsoft Office: Open Office.

Open Office
Open Office is an open source software (OSS), freely downloaded office suite. It comes complete with a document editor, a spreadsheet application, a presentation editor, a drawing tool, and a database. Developed primarily as a productivity suite solution for the alternative operating system Linux, Open Office is also available for the Windows platform.

A second compelling feature is Open Office documents and spreadsheets are completely compatible with Microsoft Office document formats. By this I mean one can open a Microsoft Word document and edit it using Open Office tools. This is also possible with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Further, one can author a spreadsheet with Open Office, save it in the Microsoft Excel format, and have that spreadsheet function just like normal for the recipient. Finally, as I alluded to previously, the best feature of Open Office is the cost: $0! One could run this application suite on each and every desktop in a small business for the whopping sum of $0!

So, you're now likely saying to yourself, why haven't I heard about this before? What are the downsides? Well, there are downsides but I think you'll feel the benefits outweigh the costs.

Not for hardcore users
In My Opinion (IMO), Open Office is not for the hard core author, CPA, or sales presenter. It's rather obvious Open Office takes most of its design and functionality from Microsoft Office products but comes up slightly short on usability. It's a copy. A reverse engineering job. It will take some time and effort to learn the little idiosyncrasies with Open Office. It is not what one is used to. It's a change from the norm. However, if you're a light user with a need to compose documents only a few pages in length or some simple spreadsheet calculations, your environment might benefit from incurring the Open Office learning curve.

No Personal Information Manager (PIM)
Open Office lacks an Outlook-style email, contacts, calendar, and tasks organization application. If you're not using Outlook currently, this won't be an issue. Alternatively, one could use the freely-available Outlook Express or the new freely-available Mozilla Thunderbird email client.

Installation and configuration
Microsoft spends tremendous amounts of time and money attempting to make their products easy to install. Somewhat in contrast, Open Office needs to be downloaded from openoffice.org and unzipped from a compressed file. The installation is fairly straightforward but a little rough. Finally, there is the effort of configuring this tool to act just like your existing Office applications. This isn't rocket science but probably not a comfortable task for someone unversed in experimenting with new software. You will need to judge your comfort level and weigh that against the benefits.

Related to the above, support is an issue. Support does exist but likely not in the manner in which someone from outside the technology community would expect. Because this is an OOS product, volunteers or company-sponsored representatives monitor discussion posts in order to help users. In some aspects, you get what you pay for. Because you won't pay a dime for Open Office, you also won't receive any in-person contact or even a personal email.

However, this also may not be a concern. I witness a lot of complaints regarding paid or commercial software support. It is often difficult to get someone on the phone or receive personal attention when attempting to resolve a support issue. Commercial firms offering support don't always deliver.

If you are particularly technology or computer savvy or have this type of resource easily accessible which you could lean on, this lack of traditional support may not be a concern. Also, in my experience, the on-line discussion format support avenues can be timely and effective-at times exceeding levels from commercial firms.

While seemingly in conflict with good old American capitalism, Open Office promotes the true spirit of free enterprise through consumer choice. In the past, there were Office alternatives but none which stuck with the current document standards (Office) and none which were so reasonably priced.

Open Office 1.1.3 is available using the links below. You can install and evaluate it all while keeping Office installed. There are no conflicts. Additionally, Open Office 2.0 will arrive soon which improves on usability, installation, and Office integration (http://marketing.openoffice.org/2.0/featureguide.html). Waiting for this next release may ease anxiety in a transition.

Full list of features: http://www.openoffice.org/dev_docs/features/1.1/index.html
Download site: http://download.openoffice.org/1.1.3/index.html

BTW, I composed this document using Open Office 1.1.3!