Competing With Microsoft Office, With a Dash of Help from Redmond

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 23, 2008

Here on OStatic, we've made the point many times that open source software often outdoes proprietary competitors. That said, if I see a good piece of freeware, or a fee-based commercial product, I'll still get it if it's best-of-breed. In this post, I'll flesh out a complete suite of software applications that can compete with and work seamlessly with the Microsoft Office suite, where a combination of open source titles, and one single $39.95 application will keep you totally competitive with--and compatible with--the Office suite.

Of course, we've written about OpenOffice before, including tools for extending it.  It's a competitor to Microsoft Office in many people's eyes, but if you actually share files with Office users frequently, OpenOffice sometimes runs into problems with tasks such as faithfully importing a chart built in Microsoft Excel. That's why this post will seek to balance some of the OpenOffice apps with other ones, for  absolute Office compatibility, at a total suite cost of $39.95.

Word processor. Let's start with AbiWord, my favorite open source word processor. It came out in a great new version earlier this year, and is not only totally compatible with Microsoft Word, but it even sports an interface very similar to Word's. It's clean, with straightforward menus and toolbars, and as you exchange files back-and-forth with Word users, you won't run into problems such as incorrectly formatted tables. AbiWord also supports Open Document Format (ODF), for completely open document sharing.

Spreadsheet. The OpenOffice suite has a free spreadsheet, Calc, and Google offers a free one for online use, but both are very limited and not very comatible with Microsoft Excel--one of the most powerful software applications of all. In fact, Excel is the primary application in the Microsoft Office suite that I find open source and freeware tools still can't compete with.

I have yet to find the open source spreadsheet that reliably imports the Excel charts and macros that I've built over the years in my sheets. That's why this is the one case in this post, where I am going to imply a small fee: $39.95, and yes it would go to Microsoft. That's what it costs for the Microsoft Works suite of applications which delivers you both a spreadsheet completely compatible with Excel (though it doesn't have some very advanced features) and a word processor totally compatible with Microsoft Word.

Database. Now, we need a database. Databases represent one of the areas where the open source community has really stepped up to the plate. You actually have many choices if you want a good open source database that is compatible with all the standard file formats, and more than competitive with Microsoft Access. There are great high-end offerings such as PostGreSQL, but there are also good open source databases more narrowly targeted at individuals and small businesses. Base is a direct, open source competitor to Microsoft Access that many people find approachable and easy. There are also many tutorials for it available online.

Browser. One word: Firefox. Firefox has become the very best browser--at least in my eyes--because of its support for an extensive galaxy of extensions. We've covered most of the best extensions in this post.

Presentations. OpenOffice Impress is a presentation software product that can meet most anybody's needs. It's full of all essential multimedia features, and is compatible with most every essential file format.

E-Mail. Mozilla Thunderbird is a very powerful e-mail client application that you can use in conjunction with webmail offerings such as GMail. Check out this list of great extensions for Thunderbird that we've compiled.

I realize that some people will balk at the idea of including a fee-based, non-open source set of Microsoft applications on this list, but the fact is Works can be the Office compatibility stopgap that can keep you from ever having to shell out for the expensive Office suite, or pull your hair out when a graphic doesn't import correctly. In fact, Works once was positioned as Microsoft's productivity suite. You can just use it in a pinch, and you throw Microsoft less than $40 for the protection. You're free to disagree with me, though.