Kiss Microsoft Office Goodbye: Three Alternatives to Office 2010

Why spend $279 on Microsoft's behemoth Office 2010 suite when you can get a slick, lightning fast alternative for less than one-third of the price? These three alternatives could make you forget about buying Office 2010.

It's a New Year, time to break bad old habits and make vows to live a better life. I can't help you lose weight or stop smoking, but I do have one suggestion: Break the habit of using Microsoft Office.

[For more details on the upcoming Office 2010, see this First Look].

Sure, you're used to using Microsoft's giant suite, and migrating to something different seems daunting. But here are three good reasons to give it some thought:

1. It's expensive. The newest version, Office 2010, will set you back $279 if you buy the mainstream package known as the Home and Business Edition. If you opt for a download it is $80 cheaper, but not having a physical copy of a key application will often cause much more trouble than the discount is worth. Also, the $279 boxed version of Home and Business allows use on two PCs. So if you need access on additional PCs, it will cost you.

2. Office is a resource hog, occupying a huge swath of hard drive territory, and more importantly, using a lot of CPU and memory power. That may not matter on a high-end machine, but if you're thinking about buying a netbook, it's a significant issue.

3. A number of perfectly acceptable alternatives cost much less and do nearly everything that Office does. Most importantly, they are compatible with your existing Office documents and your new work can be read and edited by people still clinging to Microsoft products.

Two Desktop Options and One in Cloud

I've found three alternatives to Office that are worth considering. Two run on your desktop and look and feel very much like Microsoft's suite: OpenOffice, which is free, and SoftMaker, which costs $79.95.

The third alternative, Zoho, like the much better known Google Docs, runs on the Internet. I've picked Zoho over Google because it does much more, is amazingly light on its feet and the competition will make everyone try harder. However, moving your routine Office chores to the cloud, as people call Web-based computing these days, is a pretty big leap.

I've tested all three suites for compatibility with Microsoft Word and Excel by making up fairly complex documents and then importing them into the corresponding alternative applications. The imported documents contained charts, text and picture boxes and drawing objects. By and large, they all did well on relatively simple documents. On more complex documents, SoftMaker Office, the product of a tiny software company based in Germany, really stood out. It did a great job importing graphics and tables that tripped up OpenOffice and Zoho.

None of these alternatives is perfect, of course, and I can think of three problem areas that you should consider:

If you link your spreadsheets to external data on a server, neither OpenOffice nor SoftMaker can handle that chore. Although I didn't test it, Zoho apparently does. And while OpenOffice and SoftMaker are quite similar to Office, some of the pull-down menus across the top are a bit different and some of the functions have different names. In sum, there is a learning curve, Zoho's being the steepest.

If you use an iPhone, you won't be able to synch contacts and calendars without Outlook. If there's a work around, I'd love to hear about it. Users of the new Nexus One phone, powered by Google's Android operating system, can synch their contacts and calendars with Google apps and probably Zoho's apps, since these two suites are quite compatible.

Open Source Option

OpenOffice is a descendant of a program developed by Sun Microsystems called Star Office. It's now open source, which means that users can actually get into the code that runs behind the scenes and change it. That's probably something you won't do, but it does mean that the program benefits from enhancements made by a large community of software-savvy users.

The main components of the OpenOffice.org Suite are the Writer word processor; the Calc spreadsheet; Impress for presentations; Draw for graphics and the Base database. For now, it is not compatible with Windows 7, though that may well change in 2010. Best of all, it is absolutely free and available to download on as many PCs or Macs as you like.

SoftMaker Office includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation programs. But it's so small it can be downloaded and run from a USB drive. The newest version costs $79.95 for up to three users. And here's one benefit of dealing with a small company: you can actually negotiate the price for additional user licenses. SoftMaker is compatible with Windows 7. Older versions are free and still available to download.

Zoho: Hit the Cloud

Zoho's office suite includes the usual word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications, plus an online organizer (a bit like Outlook, without the e-mail function) and "notebook," which allows you to collect bits and pieces of Web content in one place without leaving your browser. But Zoho's claim to fame is that all of these applications (plus another dozen business and collaboration programs the company offers) run on the Web, within your browser.

That means you sign in to Zoho, and then pick the application you need to run. The look is noticeably different than the familiar File, Edit, View etc. menus on the Office screen. Even more radical is the fact that your documents are stored online on a Zoho server. You can save versions to your hard drive and read or edit them when you are offline, but many of the most resource-intensive functions (spell check, for example) are only available online. That's a downside of course.

Because much of the heavy lifting needed to run the applications is performed by Zoho's server, not your PC, Zoho can run on low-power PCs and Netbooks that could never handle a full-blown productivity suite. Zoho Office is free for up to 10 users; $19 a month for additional seats.

Since any of these suites can be tried for free, pick one and play with it. If it's just too strange for your Office-conditioned fingers, you haven't lost much. But if it does fit the bill, you've just saved hundreds of dollars.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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