Just say Bah Humbug to Microsoft: Open Office is the sweetest suite and free too!

By Mike Kroll

Every computer should have a basic set of essential software installed regardless of its use. Of course, you have the operating system–most frequently a variation on Microsoft Windows. Second, every Windows user must have an anti-virus program installed and running. Anyone who uses a Windows machine today without anti-virus software is just silly; and if they connect to the Internet scratch silly and replace with irresponsible. Third and fourth, every computer should have a competent word processor and spreadsheet program. Finally, if you use the Internet you need both a web browser and an e-mail program at the very least. All current versions of Microsoft Windows include a competent browser (Internet Explorer) and a poor but nonetheless popular e-mail client (Outlook Express).

Once upon a time in computing fables there used to exist a variety of commercially available word processors and spreadsheets. Each product approached the designated task somewhat differently and offered users different strengths and weaknesses as the feature set matured from infancy through adolescence. Amazing as it may seem today, for a long time Microsoft was neither a dominant nor even significant participant in the competition for these basic applications. For a long time Word Perfect and Lotus dominated the hearts and minds of users and really established the requisite feature set in their respective applications. Even with the dominance of these products competitors still flourished, that is until Microsoft decided that this was a market they should get serious about.

When Microsoft debuted Word and Excel as separate applications neither was really competitive with the market leaders. The early Microsoft efforts were actually panned by reviewers for their awkwardness and failure to adequately import and export competitive data files. Microsoft turned this all around after being inspired by second and third tier competitors who jumped into the business market with "integrated packages" that combined a word processor and spreadsheet with other functions in one set of programs.

The problem with these first generation integrated programs was that neither of the principal applications competed well with the market leaders and the integration was clumsy. Microsoft say a beautiful opportunity for itself by integrating Word and Excel along with a powerful macro language and a personal information manager called Outlook. Microsoft invested considerable resources into this project and eventually added a presentation program to the suite called PowerPoint as they developed the Microsoft Office Suite.

The functionality of Word and Excel had advanced considerably by the time they were part of the Office package and the level of integration achieved by Microsoft was much greater than the earlier efforts. These facts garnered attention from software reviewers but the competitive genius of Microsoft recognized that functionality was second to the opportunity to bundle this software package with new PCs sold by the major vendors. Since all these vendors already had a relationship with Microsoft for the OS it wasn’t too difficult to offer them OEM copies of the Office Suite at bargain prices–if they would stop making competing applications available to their customers. This leverage moved to strong-arming when Microsoft eventually conditioned licensing of Windows to the bundling arrangement.

Computer buyers who get applications with their system are far less likely to abandon them by purchasing competing products separately. In short order Microsoft rapidly gained market share in both the word processing and spreadsheet areas despite products that were still inferior to that offered by Word Perfect, Lotus and other competitors who were effectively nuked by Microsoft’s weapon of mass destruction, solo control of the all-important Windows operating system. In time most of the competitors died and disappeared while Microsoft regularly upgraded the Office suite and eventually surpassed the former market leaders’ functionality.

While today it is uncommon not to be offered one of the multitude of Microsoft Office suites as an option with a new computer system purchase this choice can no longer be rammed down your throat. You can save yourself hundreds of dollars by not taking the Microsoft Office suite upgrade when you buy your next system. Incidently, you can also get off the increasingly expensive and soon-to-be-compulsory upgrade carrousel by opting for a new alternative suite.

Open Office is a free open source product anyone can download from the Internet as a very capable alternative to Microsoft Office. Like the Microsoft product it includes a word processor (Open Write), spreadsheet (Open Calc) and presentation program (Open Impress) but it also adds a drawing program and html editor. The only significant business application missing from Open Office is a database. But, considering that Microsoft’s Access database is just about the least usable application Microsoft sells to a general audience it’s not that big a loss.

Open Office matches up well with the competitive Microsoft applications and even looks similar enough to be an easy transition for long-time MS Office users. While each of the Open Office applications have their own data file structure they are extremely good at reading and writing Word and Excel files plus nearly any other surviving competing application. The only shortcoming I have found in directly transferring Word or Excel files to-and-from their Open Office counterpart is with the Microsoft macro language.

In many cases I think the Open Office approach is actually superior to that of Microsoft. For example, Open Office’s Stylist makes it easier to globally alter the appearance of a Write document than a Word document. As an open source program Open Office is ideal for customization by large corporations or universities that can add features or customize as needed. Also nice is that Open Office is available for a wide variety of hardware and operating system platforms and in numerous languages.

The entire Open Office suite is contained in a 51 megabyte compressed file that can be downloaded from www.OpenOffice.org and subsequently installed on as many systems as you like–for free! Not only does this reduce your software purchasing costs but it also means you are free of the fear of getting into a licensing battle with Microsoft inadvertently. The group of dedicated programmers that continue to develop Open Office as a labor of love are not only more responsive than the hoards of Microsoft engineers; they are also accessible by the average user through e-mail.

I love Open Office and have converted my personal computers to use it instead of the Microsoft applications. I also install Open Office on nearly all of the computers I sell or service for my customers. Although few have ever heard of the software once they use it most are more than satisfied. Whether for personal, family or business use I think you owe it to yourself to check this software out before paying Microsoft another dime for their increasingly bloated and buggy Office suite.

Mike Kroll (Dr.Mike@Bizconnect.net) is also known as Dr. Mike Computer Therapist. He operates a small computer shop in downtown Galesburg where he sells and services computers of all kinds and offers computer advice. If you are experiencing computer problems our recommendation it that you …Get Therapy!