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Comparing OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office

Comparing OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office

Companies of all sizes depend on productivity software suites that combine word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and often database applications under a shared interface. Although Microsoft's Office suite remains the most common choice for business users, the Open Office.org suite (available for download at openoffice.org) offers a free alternative that provides almost all of the features of Microsoft's productivity applications.

The Open Office suite is distributed as open source software, meaning that it is offered for free and maintained by volunteer programmers. Why would companies give away quality software? Some, like the firms distributing the Linux operating system that powers many servers, hope to sell high-margin services for installing and maintaining the software.

In the case of Open Office, Sun Microsystems has been a driving force behind the program in order to dilute the dominant market share Microsoft enjoys in corporate computing. IBM offers its free Lotus Symphony productivity suite, also based on the Open Office applications, to help promote its broader open source initiatives, and has mandated its use by employees.

Whatever the motivation, users benefit by getting free access to powerful applications that provide a viable alternative to expensive productivity suites. OpenOffice's volunteer developers consistently work on updates designed to improve the usability, security and speed of the OpenOffice applications. Depending on the version and retail outlet, list pricing for Microsoft Office can range from $150 to as much as $500, so testing alternatives can be a good idea for many business owners.

What Does Open Office Offer?

The Open Office suite includes applications for word processing (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentations (Impress), graphics creation (Draw) and a database manager (Base).

Like Microsoft's Office applications, Open Office features a series of icons and menu options across the top of the screen, and many of the keyboard commands are the same in both suites. Writer offers on-the-fly spell-checking and auto-correction (changing, for instance, "teh" to "the" automatically), as well as auto-completion of words that you've previously used in your document.

The auto-correction feature, however, doesn't check for accidentally duplicated words the way Word does, and Writer also lacks several subtle Word tools such as displaying a document's running word count in the status bar at the bottom of the screen.

For newsletters, forms or other documents that need a lot of formatting, Writer offers basic tools that will do a good job, but the design templates and capabilities are less sophisticated than Word's. For most business owners, Writer's formatting options will be powerful enough, but users with more complex needs should consider Word or a dedicated desktop publishing application.

Similarly, Calc offers many of the same features as Excel, its Microsoft Office counterpart, including templates, forms and background images. The initial download of OpenOffice has a small number of templates and sample files, but more can be downloaded to meet specific needs.

While Writer and Calc are strong replacements or substitutes for Microsoft Office applications, the same can't be said for Impress, the presentation application. Impress isn't as robust as Microsoft's PowerPoint, and offers fewer options for design and animation. If you only give presentations occasionally, Impress will probably be adequate, but if presentations are an important tool for communicating with clients or prospects, PowerPoint will probably be a better choice.

Another benefit of using OpenOffice is the built-in capability to print documents as PDF files, a feature that can save business owners the cost of a dedicated PDF-creation program.

On the down side, however, the OpenOffice suite takes longer to load than Microsoft Office. Once a program is running, it's not demonstrably slower than a similar Microsoft application, but you'll probably notice a difference when you launch OpenOffice.

Sharing and Compatibility

OpenOffice has been designed to promote compatibility with Microsoft Office documents and files. OpenOffice users can easily import files using Microsoft's file formats, including the .docx files used in the latest versions of Microsoft Word. Unless a document has a large amount of complex formatting, in most instances, OpenOffice users can open and work with files without difficulty.

Similarly, it's easy to save an OpenOffice document into variety of file formats include Word documents (.doc, but not .docx), rich text, plain text, HTML, XML, and others.

Calc and Impress files can also be saved into the default formats for their matching Microsoft applications, so they can be opened easily by Office users.

Is OpenOffice a Suitable Replacement?

While the initial attraction for many business owners is the fact that OpenOffice is free, it can replace Microsoft's Office suite for small business owners in a wide range of industries. The OpenOffice applications offer most of the functionality of Microsoft Office while allowing users to save the cost of the Microsoft suite.

Users who routinely exchange complex documents or spreadsheets with clients would probably want to stick with Microsoft Office, but since OpenOffice is free, business owners have nothing to lose by trying it out and seeing how well it meets their needs.

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