3 challenges raised to Microsoft Office

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September 27, 2007|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

When you write a letter, term paper or newspaper column, you'll probably use Microsoft Word. Buffing up a balance sheet? You'll probably use Microsoft Excel. Nodding off during a mind-numbing presentation? You're a victim of Microsoft PowerPoint.

These are the building blocks of Microsoft Office, the company's flagship productivity suite and 800-pound gorilla of the business and academic world. Whether you're a Windows or Mac user, you've probably paid the Microsoft Office toll - more than once.

Today, however, some powerful challengers are chipping away at the Office edifice. They have significant outside backing, they're compatible with Office documents and best of all, they're free - something that Office is definitely not.

The oldest challenger to Microsoft is OpenOffice.org, which for obscure trademark reasons is the name of both the software and the Web site where you'll find it.

Born as StarOffice in a brief commercial incarnation, the suite was eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems, which declared it an open source project. That made the programming code available to everyone. The OpenOffice suite is now supported by teams of volunteers who give it away online (although you're free to make a donation to the cause).

Just remember that the word "volunteer" doesn't mean "amateur." Most of the volunteers who support OpenOffice are talented professionals who donate their time and skill for the technical challenge and a chance to make a contribution to the community. Most also have a healthy dislike for Microsoft Corp.

Whatever their motivation, OpenOffice is a well-executed suite of programs that can handle 99 percent of the chores that most people do with their Microsoft counterparts. Because it includes a database, OpenOffice is the most comprehensive of the free alternatives. And it's truly cross-platform - available for computers running the Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Solaris operating systems.

Although it was unveiled just last week, the beta version of International Business Machines Corp.'s Lotus Symphony looks just as capable as OpenOffice at first glance. That shouldn't be surprising, because it's based on the same open source code.

If you've been around long enough, you'll remember the Symphony name from a DOS-based integrated suite that Lotus Development Corp. published back in 1984, before IBM acquired the company. The new version - which shares only the name - is available for Windows and Linux systems, with a Mac version planned for the future.

I don't have space to review both software suites here. Suffice it to say that they look and work enough like their Microsoft counterparts - or they did before the controversial Office 2007 makeover - that you'll be able to figure them out quickly.

IBM's interface, executed in shades of the traditional Big Blue, is a bit less confusing and more buttoned down than OpenOffice, but this is strictly a matter of taste. See for yourself - the only caveat is that both are 100-megabyte-plus downloads. If you don't have a broadband connection, you can order a CD online. Or get a friend who has broadband to download it for you and burn it to a CD or flash drive.

In my trials I couldn't find a Microsoft-created word processing job, spreadsheet or presentation on my hard drive that wouldn't load into its OpenOffice or Symphony counterpart - although I did spot a few minor formatting problems.

Also, none of my documents required Microsoft's internal macro programming language for automated tasks. If your company documents do, test OpenOffice or Symphony carefully before committing time-critical documents to their care. If a glitch costs a couple of hours of your valuable time, free software can turn out to be very expensive.

This brings up another technical issue - file formats. These are the coding schemes that programmers use to store documents. If you're creating documents strictly for your own use, this isn't important. But the moment you share the electronic versions with other folks, you'll have to pay attention to this issue.

OpenOffice and Symphony are compatible with the OpenDocument format (ODf), an industry standard that allows programs from different developers to read each other's documents and preserve typefaces, paragraphs, indents, tabs, bullets, numbering and so forth.

Both free suites also support the proprietary but widely-copied formats that Microsoft used in its basic Office products until the 2007 version. Although Office 2007 programs can read and write traditional Office formats, their native tongue is a new format that only Microsoft has adopted so far.

For now, the free, open source suites might have problems with native Office 2007 documents. But I think experienced Microsoft Office 2007 users will save documents in the earlier formats anyway, just to keep things straight with people who might have to read them with older versions of the program.

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