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    Here’s a good free detour around Microsoft’s toll road

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver February 27-March 6, 2006; issue 853

    High Tech Office column; 

    A few issues ago, we looked at Corel WordPerfect, with its new X3 version aiming to position itself as an affordable alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite. WordPerfect promises an interface that will seem familiar to MS Office users. It also has some useful features such as PDF import that go beyond what Microsoft is promising, even in its upcoming version, and, recognizing that Microsoft’s Office dominates the product category, WordPerfect offers better-than-ever compatibility with Office file formats. Not a bad deal for about half of what Microsoft charges.

    But for businesses, organizations and individuals open to alternatives, it’s hard to beat free as a price. And that’s the cost of the five-year-old open source office suite, which also has a new version 2.

    The suite, available for download from, includes word processor, spreadsheet and presentation modules with good Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint compatibility. It also has a new database module, though that makes no claims to compatibility with the Microsoft Office’s Access.

    The new version adds support for password-protected MS Office files and for WordPerfect files.

    A redesigned interface will raise the comfort level for users moving from Microsoft’s suite, while all modules feature PDF export, which Microsoft is only promising for its next Office version. ( does not match WordPerfect’s PDF import feature, however.)

    The new interface is most improved on OpenOffice Impress, the suite’s presentation module, making it a more effective challenger to PowerPoint. Impress lacks the wealth of pre-made presentation templates bundled with PowerPoint, though many of these have become such clichés that forcing users to create their own slide designs may provide relief to presentation audiences.

    The new version by default saves files in OpenDocument format, a new international standard. It’s easy, however, to change the defaults so that files are automatically saved in the equivalent Microsoft Office formats, making for easier exchange with all those users of the high-priced spread. can take a while to load the first time, especially on older hardware. There’s a trick that can help, however. Go into the options and disable Java support, which is only needed by the database module; that can cut startup time by half or more. is available in versions for Windows, Linux and several other Unix-dialects. A Mac OS X version is available, but does not support the standard Mac interface, requiring installation of the Unix X11 interface. Alternatively, NeoOffice/J is a more Mac-like offshoot, though it’s not yet updated with the latest features. If you or your organization’s IT department turn pale at the thought of downloading an office suite that lacks formal tech support, consider Sun’s StarOffice 8. While a commercial product, complete with support, StarOffice shares most programming code with its free sibling, but includes some enhanced features such as a Macro Migration Wizard to aid in converting Microsoft Office Visual Basic macros. StarOffice pricing starts at around $85 and drops rapidly for multiple licences.

    If you need to access Microsoft Access database files or if your business has standardized on Microsoft Outlook for e-mail and calendaring, you might have no options. Resign yourself to paying whatever price is necessary to outfit yourself with Microsoft Office.

    If you have some flexibility in those areas, however, it might be worth your while to add one to the over 50 million downloads of

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