Which Office Suite Should I Use?
Written by Erik Neff   
Saturday, 23 September 2006
About two weeks ago, while I was on my honeymoon, my sister sent me an e-mail asking where she could buy a copy of Microsoft Office.  When I got back, I tried to answer the question as succinctly as possible, but knowing that she was probably going to be using it for her growing corporate wellness business, I just couldn't give the simple "buy it from store X".  She had ignored the more important fundamental question, "Which Office Suite Should I Use?"

The Need:
To create Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations to accomplish various business and personal tasks.
Functionality, Compatibility, Legality, and Cost
OpenOffice (Free), Microsoft Office ($100/pc on ebay, or $275/pc retail), and Google Office (Free, but NOTE: Google Office is not a term Google uses.  Its free online e-mail, calendar, spreadsheet, and page creator services are available, but its online collaborative word processor Writely isn't perfected yet, and no online collaborative presentation creation service exists, yet]).

I look forward to the day when I can tell anyone who needs an office productivity suite, be it for personal or small business needs that "Google Office" is what they should use, and that would be the end of the conversation.  That day however, is not today.  My wife and I found Google's collaborative spreadsheet service "Google Spreadsheets" to be a life-saver during the planning for our wedding, and is now the only spreadsheet application we use, but the rest of the Google's Office suite just isn't ready yet.  Google's online collaborative word processor "Writely" is still in heavy development, and probably won't be ready for prime-time use for another year or so.  The final nail in the "Google Office" coffin (for now) is the lack of a service for creating presentations and slide shows like OpenOffice Presentations or Microsoft PowerPoint Presentations, although I it is likely that one is being built or in the process of being acquired as we speak.  The reason for mentioning any of this is because the ability to work on the same document simultaneously with multiple people in different locations around the world is simply the holy grail of Office Suites, and the only way that can work for the masses is through a browser.  So, basically what I'm saying is that it will be likely a year or two before "Google Office" is the recommendation of IT Professionals such as myself.

So, really you're down to only two options for now: OpenOffice, and Microsoft Office.  I usually recommend OpenOffice, because it does pretty much everything Microsoft Office does, it supports all of Microsoft's file formats, and does it all for free.  But perhaps the most valuable detail is that it uses the .odf file format (the Open Document Format), which won't force you to use OpenOffice forever, unlike Microsoft and its classically conspicuous monopoly proliferation.  However, there are two minor drawbacks that must be considered before jumping on www.openoffice.org and getting started:

  1. Formatting and Appearance: Occasionally the formatting of documents created in Microsoft Office just doesn't look right when opened in OpenOffice.  The easiest way to solve this problem for all future documents you want to create is to use OpenOffice's default file format, .odf (Open Document Format).  In the past, people who didn't have OpenOffice wouldn't be able to view this file, however, a plug-in for all versions of Microsoft Office has been created so that existing users of say, Microsoft Office, can view and edit the file as well.  Of course, if you're sending a file to someone for just viewing purposes only, all you have to do is click the "Save as PDF" button that's built into OpenOffice (this is what should always be done whenever sending a view-only document) and you've got a PDF file ready for viewing that will look exactly as you created.
  2. Learning Curve: OpenOffice was designed to have the look and feel of Microsoft Office so as to increase the ease of switch from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.  That being said, there are a few minor differences that take some getting used to.  For example, changing the margins - a fairly simple task.  But for a long time, and for no good reason, Microsoft has insisted that page formatting was somehow related to and belong in the File menu.  In this case you'll have to un-train yourself from that decade-long brain fart and learn to think logically again: "I want to change the Format of the page, so I should look in the... Format menu - incredible!  Although I don't think this is a significant deterrent, it is nevertheless a consideration.
  3. Features:  Although I've only encountered this problem only once in the past half decade, technically speaking, Microsoft Office has a few more features than OpenOffice.  The isolated incident had to do with formatting of tables, and it was about 2 or 3 years ago, and since that time, OpenOffice has updated its feature set to include the function that was lacking at the time.  In five years, I haven't encountered a single instance where OpenOffice was incapable of doing what I wanted it to do, but, like #2, although it isn't a significant deterrent, it is nevertheless a consideration.

So, there you have it.  My future recommendation is Google Office, but since that's not complete yet, my current recommendation is OpenOffice.  That being said, if you've got some money to burn and feel like the concerns above warrant you to avoid OpenOffice for now, the most inexpensive way to get a legal copy of Microsoft Office is from ebay, whereas the most inexpensive retail way to get it is from CanadaComputers, (either drive to their new Hamilton branch, or order it online), and finally, if you're the unscrupulous type, you can download it pretty easily for free.  Like I said before, I haven't had it installed on my computer in half a decade, but nevertheless, the option is there should you choose to do so.  Regardless, I think the best route for now is www.openoffice.org.
Last Updated ( Sunday, 24 September 2006 )
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