Thursday, January 30, 2014

Free Software: Microsoft Office Replacements.

Software is often expensive, if you are a student, starting a small business, or just a home user the expense of Microsoft Office might be more of an expanse than you can justify.  What a lot of people are not aware of is that there are free and legal software solutions available that you can download from the Internet.

Apache OpenOffice 4.01
Apache OpenOffice has a rather long and complicated history. OpenOffice started out as an Office suite  called StarOffice which was bought by Sun Microsystems. Sun bought StarOffice because it ran on Unix so it would run on Sun's version of Unix called Solaris. Up till that point every person that worked at Sun had both a Sun workstation and a Windows computer just run Office. It was cheaper for Sun to buy an Office suite company than to keep paying Microsoft for Windows and Office. StarOffice was already free for Linux and Sun kept giving it away for free and finally open sourced StarOffice as OpenOffice.  Of course the story does not end there, Oracle bought Sun in 2010. Oracle's history with open source is not all that positive, which caused many developers to leave Sun. That brought about a situation where a group a developers took the open source code and created LibreOffice. Oracle saw no real value in keeping OpenOffice so they eventually gave the code to the Apache foundation and that is why we have two almost identical free open source office suites.

OpenOffice is composed of several applications, just like Microsoft Office.  Writer is a word processor like Word or WordPerfect, and supports all the features that most people would expect from a word processor and is fairly compatible with Microsoft Word.  Unlike Microsoft Word, Writer does not ship with a grammar checker, but you can choose from two free grammar check extensions.

Calc, the spreadsheet application that comes with OpenOffice. It will do most of the things that an average user will need including charts and macros. I am not a spreadsheet wizard but I have used it often for spreadsheets and it got the job done.

The rest of the applications in OpenOffice are Impress for presentations, The database manager Base, Draw for vector art, and a mathematical formula editor make OpenOffice a complete office suite.

I covered Officeholder’s creation in the section on OpenOffice. After the split from OpenOffice the LibreOffice team made huge leaps in usability and Docx compatibility.  Today the differences in the actual programs are small, and will very between updates as one tends to leapfrog the other in features.

LibreOffice has just updated to Version 4.2 which includes a compete refactoring of Calc which now will use the GPU to speed up calculations. Today LibreOffice is in the lead, for or more information on the changes click here.

The Pros.
Both suites are very powerful, run on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and best of all it is free.

The Cons.
Ease of use and documentation is where OpenOffice and LibreOffice really fall sort. OpenOffice and LibreOffice really need tutorials, better wizards and better documentation. Doing the most common simple tasks with both programs is simple enough but once you get into more complex tasks you are often left with little documentation. Some tasks like picking a range for legends on a chart are just a lot more complex than on Office.

Go cloud based?
Google and Microsoft offer free cloud based office suites that might do what that you need.

Google Drive and Docs.
Google Docs offers the same type of applications as OpenOffice and LibreOffice with the exception of a database management system. Docs also offers a number of other apps that you can integrate with Drive. While none of the applications are as feature rich as OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or Microsoft Office they are good enough for most people. Google Docs can import a large number of file formats including the native formats for OpenOffice and LibreOffice as well as multiple versions of Microsoft Office.

Microsoft SkyDrive offers free web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.   I have used them and they actually seem more powerful than the same apps from Google. When I first tried the apps then where a bit buggy for me. Last time I tried SkyDrive apps it they seemed to work but I did not do exhaustive testing.  While Google Docs have become very popular SkyDrive apps have just have not seemed to catch on. The reason could be that Microsoft does not advertise SkyDrive apps so that they do not impact the sales of Microsoft's Office 365.

Google Docs or Microsoft SkyDrive.
This is a difficult call. I use Google Docs out of inertia, Google Docs work so I have not seen any reason to change. I have used SkyDrive apps but have not migrated to them. If you are a heavy Office user then SkyDrive may be the better choice.

Cloud or not?
The SkyDrive and Google Docs will work on any computer with a modern browser and an Internet connection. Cloud applications also make sharing and collaborating on documents simple. Your docs are also available anywhere you can get an internet connection. The downside is your files are stored on Google's and or Microsoft's server. If your internet connection is down or their servers are down your data could be unreachable. A very good option is to use both the cloud and OpenOffice or LibreOffice together. You can save your documents to SkyDrive or Google Drive to create cloud based backups and allow for collaborating on the net.

Which office suite should you use?
I would give all of them a try, and select the one that works best for you. These free solutions are a good and cost effective solution when compared with buying or subscribing to Microsoft Office. While none of the free solutions are as powerful or easy to use as Microsoft Office not everyone needs the power of Office.  If you are running Linux then Microsoft Office is not an option. If you are using a Chromebook than even the only solution would be a cloud based solution. Do you need Office or can one of these free suites work for you? You are the best judge of your requirements ,but for most people any of these apps is probably more than good enough.

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