Thursday, June 18, 2009

Break from MS Office with free alternatives

By By Scott Spanbauer

If you're thinking of skipping the next expensive Microsoft Office upgrade, you can begin preparing today for the move to a free Office-like suite or Web service.

A gradual and easy transition allows you to avoid any possible file incompatibilities, because you can still keep an old copy of Office available as a safety net.

I like almost everything about Microsoft Office except its price. Even so, like many people, I use only a fraction of the suite's features. I rely mostly on the basic formatting, spellcheck, grammar, and review features of Word, with an occasional Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint slide thrown in for good measure. The rest of Office is bloatware to me.

I don't automate my documents with VBA macros; my Excel tables are rudimentary; and my PowerPoint presentations are just the facts, ma'am. Do I really need to pay to load a copy of Office on every computer I use?

I stuck with the Microsoft behemoth all the way through Office 2003. To date, I've never felt a need for Office 2007. In recent years, meanwhile, upstart productivity applications have seduced me away from Microsoft's ubiquitous suite.

I started using the free, open-source suite on a daily basis several years ago to see whether it could really replace Office. Though OpenOffice's menu commands, dialog boxes, and settings often vary only slightly from those of the corresponding Microsoft Office applications, I found the switch to OpenOffice's Writer and Calc applications easy.

And because OpenOffice is free, I can install the program on every one of the PCs I use, whether it runs Windows, Linux, or OS X. You can get your copy — or copies — at the download page.

I outlined the major differences between MS Office and OpenOffice in my Oct. 30, 2008, review of 3. There are a couple of reasons why I haven't given up Office 2003 entirely. For one thing, I maintain several important databases in Access. Unfortunately, OpenOffice's Base database program is not a replacement for Access. Base can't read and save Access files the way Writer does with Word files, Calc does with Excel files, and Impress does with PowerPoint files.

Another reason I keep a copy of Office around is because OpenOffice lacks a PIM analogous to Outlook. This is a hole you can fill with one of the many alternatives I reviewed in my July 31, 2008, and Aug. 14, 2008, Best Software columns. Another alternative is to use OpenOffice with Yahoo's free Zimbra Desktop service in place of Outlook.

Compatibility with Office file types remains a problem for OpenOffice and other Office alternatives. Before you make the switch, open your most important Office documents in the Office replacement of your choice to ensure that the files look and function as expected.

OpenOffice opens and saves files in .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats (among others), usually without a problem. In my experience, however, those documents may not always look and behave exactly as they do in Microsoft Office.

You can protect yourself from unwanted surprises by opening and printing a generous sampling of key files you've exchanged with co-workers and clients. More importantly, keep an old copy of Office installed on at least one of your computers, just in case.

Stick with standard Office file formats

You can minimize file-compatibility issues by standardizing on the most common file formats. By default, saves files in Open Document Format (ODF). Microsoft's by-the-book support for ODF, unfortunately, breaks some spreadsheet files, according to a recent ZDNet blog post.

OpenOffice reads and writes Office 2007's default .docx and .xlsx XML file formats. But the older .doc and .xls formats are still the ones most often used. I suggest that you make the classic Office formats your defaults in OpenOffice. To set .doc as the document default, for example, open any OpenOffice program and do the following:

* Step 1. Choose Tools, Options;
* Step 2. Select General under Load/Save;
* Step 3. Click Text Document under Document type in the Default file format and ODF settings section;
* Step 4. Choose Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP in the Always save as drop-down menu and click OK.

To make .xls the default worksheet format, open the same dialog box and follow the same steps, with the following differences:

* Step 1. Choose Spreadsheet under Document type in the Default file format and ODF settings section;
* Step 2. Choose Microsoft Excel 97/2000/XP in the Always save as drop-down list and click OK.

The best sites for taking Office files online

Both Office and OpenOffice are tied to a specific computer. If you're like me, you're constantly bouncing from one PC to another as you wend your way between home and office, coffee shops and airports, iPhones and Blackberries.

If you long to store your documents in the Internet cloud — where you can reach them any time from any Internet-connected PC — make Google Docs your first stop. Thanks to the recent addition of Google Gears offline caching, you can even view and edit your Google Docs when you board a flight or are otherwise unable to access the Net.

As with OpenOffice, be sure to upload, open, and print a representative sampling of your existing documents in Google Docs to check for compatibility before you make a permanent switch. Google's Web-hosted document, spreadsheet, and presentation apps offer far fewer features than their counterparts in MS Office and OpenOffice.

However, because your Google Docs files are online 24/7, you're not the only person who can access your stuff via the Net. You can also share the files with other Google Docs users. You can even publish documents to your blog with just a couple of clicks. And it's no surprise that Google Docs can also be seamlessly integrated with Gmail.

You may find that Google Docs and the similar, collaboration-oriented ThinkFree Online Web apps are too streamlined for you. If so, try Zoho Office, a Web service that offers feature-rich word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications.

Zoho Office matches Google Docs' offline support via Google Gears (in the Writer application only) and provides a dozen more free apps. Zoho even has a plug-in for Microsoft Office that lets you open, edit, and save Zoho-hosted files in Word, Excel, or PowerPoint themselves.

You can do the same trick with an extension called OpenOffice.org2GoogleDocs. This bit of software is available on the site. Despite its name, the OpenOffice extension also supports Zoho and WebDAV servers.

Microsoft offers a similar tool through its free Office Live Workspace. The software giant reportedly also plans to make online capabilities a part of the upcoming Office 2010.

Fortunately, you don't have to wait until 2010 to use the Office-like suite of your choice, either online or offline.

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