Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

Cheap alternatives to MS Office are feature-filled

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #669  August 20, 26, 2002 High Tech Office  column

Last week, we saw how open source or free software was becoming a more credible alternative for many businesses, particularly with the recent release of both the OpenOffice office suite and the Mozilla Web browser.

OpenOffice is derived from the StarOffice suite, purchased by Sun Microsystems from its German developers. Sun released its source code for open-source development, resulting in the both free OpenOffice 1.0 and a similar but enhanced edition, released by Sun as StarOffice 6.0.

Both versions have a lot in common: they're available for a range of operating systems and languages. Both share a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation module, and graphics editing module. But neither includes a module to rival Microsoft Office's Outlook. Both have a look and feel that will be familiar to users of Microsoft Office, and do a reasonably good job of opening saved MS Office documents.

Not perfect mind you: heavily formatted documents may require some massaging and Microsoft Office macros won't work. While documents can be saved in Microsoft formats, these suites would really rather save documents using a space-saving variation of the Web-standard XML language, a direction that Microsoft is hinting it will use in its next edition of Office.

Like many open-source projects, these suites offer lots of flexibility. But here's a general rule: If you don't know what an option means, you don't need to change it.

OpenOffice is available as a free download from The Windows version is 47 MB. Versions for the Linux and Sun Solaris operating systems are also available while a Mac OS X version is under development. And unlike Microsoft's newest Office XP, OpenOffice and StarOffice support Windows 95. A single copy can be freely distributed on as many computers as desired.

While some earlier versions of StarOffice were free, the new version 6.0 is not, though its code remains open source. It adds a minimalist database module and some fonts to the basic OpenOffice feature set, but most importantly, it includes support from Sun. A single copy (US$76) is licensed to a single user and can be installed on up to five systems. By comparison, Microsoft Office XP Professional sells at retail for $850 and can be installed on up to two computers.

(Yes, little known fact: you can legally install that copy of Office XP -- but not Windows XP -- on both an office and home computer or on both a desktop and notebook system.)

It may be worth it to look at moving to OpenOffice or StarOffice for business word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Don't let visions of huge savings be your only consideration, however. Testing is in order to ensure either will be compatible with the documents you use.

(And if you're installing one of these on a system that also has Microsoft Office, note that it will want to take over as the 'registered' application for your MS Office documents. You can avoid this by watching the options during installation, however.)

Like MS Office, both OpenOffice and StarOffice are filled with features, most of us will never use. If they meet your tests for compatibility with your saved documents, either the affordable StarOffice or the free OpenOffice would be capable replacements.

(Is your workplace planning to check out open-source office suite software? Let me know.)

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan