Abort-Retry-Fail: Alternatives to 'Office'

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By Bill Gregory

Last week I started on some alternatives to the expensive software that "everyone" seems to want. I have often wondered why people insist on shelling out big bucks (sometimes upwards of $500!) for software that is so far beyond their needs that they will never use it to its full capability. I realize that in the case of college students, there may be a requirement to submit papers in, say Microsoft Word file format, but, as I mentioned last week, most alternative software can save files in the format of other software of the same type; Works and Corel WordPerfect, for example, can open and save Word files, etc.

If you need a good "office suite" that is compatible with the Microsoft Office programs (from about $400 to about $540) you could purchase Corel WordPerfect Office X3 (from about $100 to about $370) or you could go to OpenOffice.org and download the Open Office suite. (This may take a while, especially if you are on a dial-up connection; the file is 120Mb!)

Open Office is an always-under-construction suite of programs that are completely compatible with Microsoft Office. The suite includes Writer, the word processor, Calc, the spreadsheet, Base, the database, Math, the mathematical function creator and Impress, the presentation program (compatible with Microsoft PowerPoint).

The "Open" in the title refers to the way that this suite has been developed. In "open" architecture, a program is distributed, usually free, along with its source code, so that software developers anywhere in the world can contribute their input for improvements or functionality. So instead of having a company of a hundred or so programmers, you can have an unlimited number. (Of course the people at OpenOffice.org review and test each contribution to ensure that the product is stable and virus free.) After changes are made the program is made available to the public for free, primarily for testing purposes. With Open Office you are not getting a buggy, "trial" version; you are getting the real thing.

I have used Open Office myself from time to time and have found it to be the equal of the Microsoft and Corel entries. Writer had no problem opening, editing and saving Word files. Likewise Calc was able to open, edit and save Microsoft Excel files. I had a customer that complained to me that his friends were emailing PowerPoint files to him and he could not open them. I installed Open Office on his computer and now he has no problem opening those files using Impress.

This article is being composed using Writer. When I am finished, I can save this as a Writer file (*.odt) or as a Word file (*.doc) or use the universal Rich Text Format (*.rtf) that can be opened by any word processing program. The Calc spreadsheet is completely compatible with Excel, even supporting the multiple worksheet functions.

I would suggest that you give Open Office a try before you plunk down the kind of money that the alternatives will cost you. You have nothing to lose and you will be helping to develop a better software product.

If you have a computer-related problem or question that you would like answered in this column, please send it to the Cedar Key Beacon by email at editor@cedarkeybeacon or PCTech@islandcity.net.