There are good, even free, alternatives to Microsoft

Business in Vancouver, Issue 608 June 19, 2001
The high-tech office column


Over the past three columns, we've looked at new office suites from Corel and Microsoft. Between them, these two companies account for most of the market, but they're not the only options.

Lotus/IBM, for example, continues to develop its Smartsuite office suite. Their latest is the Millennium version. It's often found preinstalled on IBM's popular Thinkpad notebooks and other hardware, though users tend to overlook it in favour of the Microsoft or Corel products with greater mind and market share.

That's too bad. Along with offering reasonable compatibility with Microsoft file formats, Smartsuite's components offer a lot more. Wordpro is perhaps the best of the word processors for page layout. The Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet is a modern version of this classic. The Freelance Graphics presentation package, Organizer personal information manager and Approach database all combine power and ease of use. The suite has long included collaboration features that Microsoft is just starting to offer. The suite is an especially good choice for organizations using Lotus Notes for networked collaboration.

Sun purchased and continues to update Star Office, offering it for free download (or as an inexpensive CD for those averse to 50-MB downloads:

The latest version 5.2 is available for Windows, Solaris/Sparc or Linux users and promises improved compatibility with Microsoft file formats. While Microsoft is pushing Office XP as a step towards its vision of Internet connectivity, Sun makes the same claims for its office suite and its vision.

Somewhat more modest perhaps is Software 602, also available as a free download, at least for home/small business users ( The free Windows-only version promises Word and Excel compatibility, integration with Outlook Express and digital camera and scanner support. Registration (also free) is required to activate the spell checker. Relatively low-cost paid versions add a variety of network features, the ability to create Adobe Acrobat PDF files, and more.

If you have a fast and stable Internet connection, there are also several Office alternatives online. They won't be as responsive as an application on your local hard drive and will be totally unusable when you don't have network access but, overall, they work better than you might expect.

On the other hand, perhaps not surprisingly, they have been affected by the general Internet commerce meltdown. Of six such offerings reviewed by PC Magazine last summer, two have vanished (including their best of breed, Hotoffice), while one has merged. Still worth a look is Thinkfree Office ( While more of an Office-lite than a product a power user would love, it offers online Write, Calc and Show programs, along with folders for storing your work. The company has aimed for what it considers the 80 per cent of users who use 20 per cent of Office's features. Write, the word processor, offers a choice of Word compatibility or HTML creation, complete with graphics and tables, spell checking and user-customizable dictionaries. Java-based, it will run on Windows, Linux and Mac systems and requires only about 10 MB of space on a user's system. The 20 MB of Cyberdrive space provided shows up on your system as if it were a hard drive, but is accessible anywhere you have an Internet connection.

Despite the name, Thinkfree is no longer available free; it costs US$50 a year per user. More online storage is available for additional costs.

Other Office alternatives include the more modest programs, still offering more than most of us really need: Microsoft Works or Appleworks (Mac users only).

Despite the range of alternatives, the most popular Office XP alternative will remain older versions of Microsoft Office. While Microsoft claims an astounding 250-million Office users, only 20 per cent upgraded to Office 2000. It remains to be seen how many will be seduced by Microsoft's vision of where it wants you to go today.

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