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OpenOffice as an Alternative to Microsoft Office

For a while most businesses and educational institutions were limited to Microsoft Office or … Microsoft Office. But in the last couple of years, a viable open-source option has emerged: OpenOffice. Should you consider OpenOffice? Will it make sense for your users and organization? What are the differences between these two office suites?

We will compare Microsoft Office 2003 Professional to 2.0 — or at least some key parts of these suites. Unfortunately, comparing office suites isn’t an exact science. The applications packaged together aren’t completely analogous, so we will limit this article’s comparisons to a couple of areas:

-We have to talk about Word Processors, of course, which means Microsoft’s Word 2003 vs. OpenOffice’s Writer.

-An office suite just isn’t an office suite without a spreadsheet, so we’ll also take a look at Excel 2003 up against OpenOffice‘s Calc proram.

-Email tools and calendaring are also a critical part of an office suite, but OpenOffice’s developers haven’t released any email or calendar software. We’ll compare Outlook 2003 with Thunderbird (email) and Sunbird (calendar), made by the Mozilla Corporation. These tools are also free, open-source, and often used with OpenOffice, although they need to be installed separately.

There’s more to both office suites, of course. OpenOffice’s Base is similar to Access 2003. PowerPoint 2003 is matched with Impress. To correspond to Microsoft’s Visio, there’s OpenOffice’s Draw. OpenOffice offers an equation editor called Math, while Microsoft Office offers Publisher 2003 for desktop publishing. Because we all have a limited amount of patience, we’ll leave these comparisons for another article.

OpenOffice and Microsoft Office are similar enough that actual feature differences are likely to be just one of many factors in your decision making. But philosophy, system requirements, support, usability…these are the things we tend to worry about most.

Delusional Utopian Hippies vs. Cynical Corporate Greedheads

The Microsoft philosophy is very different from OpenOffice’s or Mozilla’s, which use an open-source model in which software is jointly created, often by volunteers, and freely distributed, allowing anyone to use, redistribute, adapt, or improve their code. Microsoft uses a much more tightly controlled commercial-license model, in which the sale of its software pays for professional programmers and project managers, testing, management, marketing and sales, and shareholder dividends.

There are a lot of strong feelings behind the great open-source-versus-commercial-license debate. Some people won’t use any software tools that aren’t freely distributed, while others refuse to buy generic medications because they want pharmaceutical companies to be rewarded for their research and development investments. If you have strongly held beliefs about the importance of private-sector research and development versus the desire to share information freely, we suspect that we’re not going to be able to change your mind. So we’ll limit our comments here to the tangible benefits of these models.

System Support: Typical or Criminally Old Computers

For most computers that you would actually want to use, both OpenOffice and Microsoft Windows will work fine. While OpenOffice is said to be a bit slower, particularly in opening up complex documents in Microsoft’s proprietary formats, the difference is negligible if you’ve purchased your computer in the last couple of years. Both platforms also offer comparable support for the Mac.

OpenOffice offers better support for older computers than the latest version of Microsoft Office. Office 2003 says its minimum spec is a Pentium 450 MHz with 256 MB of RAM, while OpenOffice lists a Pentium 166 MHz processor with 128 MB of RAM. While Office 2003 requires Window 2000 or XP to run fully, OpenOffice will run on Windows 98. What’s more, OpenOffice will run under Linux (as well as Solaris and BSD), and Linux runs much more effectively on old computers than Windows 2000 or XP. This makes Linux and OpenOffice a practical combination even for quite old computers, especially when few other applications are needed (in a computer lab setting, for instance).

As an interesting side note,, Thunderbird, and Sunbird are all available as portable applications, while Microsoft Office 2003 is not. For some people, being able to carry around their personally configured office suite on a USB thumbdrive, portable hard drive, or iPod is life altering. Others may think those people are crazy and need to get a life.

Usability, Training, and Support

Anyone who has used Word or Excel will feel comfortable in Write and Calc. While previous versions of OpenOffice had a less polished interface, version 2.0 has taken a page from Microsoft’s book, instituting a polished and relatively familiar user interface. In fact, they’ve take a lot of pages from Microsoft’s book: in most ways the interfaces are nearly identical, down to the formula syntax in Excel/Calc. You can think of moving from MS Office to OpenOffice as if you were moving from Office 2000 to Office 2003: there are small differences, and users who have learned things by rote may need to be trained in the new software, but the concepts are all the same.

More advanced features tend to differ between the two packages. The template documents are substantially different between the two suites, so those used to using pre-packaged layouts for documents or charts may need to make some adjustments.

The same is true of Thunderbird and Outlook: going back and forth is pretty seamless. But unfortunately, that’s not true for Sunbird, Mozilla’s calendaring tool. While Outlook is mature, stable, and easy to use, Sunbird is really not as of yet (Mozilla still lists it as Alpha). For now, none of the open-source calendar products, or those offered by the dozen or so Web 2.0 companies who have introduced calendars in the past year, can compete with Outlook for simplicity, usability, documentation, and support.

There’s more support for Microsoft Office 2003 than anyone can possibly use: dozens of books, official support from Microsoft itself, sanctioned support from people who have earned Microsoft licenses, professional call centers, and a Web full of sites that contain tips and guides for modifying, configuring, and using Office 2003 software.’s support is more community driven, and generally free, with a documentation project and discussion forums led by volunteers. It’s easier to find Microsoft Office training and support, but it’s likely to cost more. It depends what you prefer.

One final consideration for the IT staff types out there: because OpenOffice has much looser licensing requirements, you don’t need to worry about installing unlimited copies around your office or for friends or partner organizations. When you buy or recieve a free version of Office 2003, you may only install it on a specified number of computers within your organization, so you’ll need to keep track of exactly where it’s been installed.

Sharing Documents with Friends and Neighbors

In general, both Office 2003 and OpenOffice can create files that can be read by pretty much everyone else. In the case of Office 2003, this is because Microsoft has established de facto formats such as .doc for Word documents and .xls for Excel. OpenOffice, on the other hand, uses open standards for its native files, but can both read and write files in Microsoft’s formats. OpenOffice has invested a lot of effort in ensuring that Writer and Calc users can share documents with Microsoft users and has succeeded in all but a few specific cases mentioned below, like Excel pivot tables. OpenOffice users can even choose to automatically save out files in Microsoft formats by default.


Just a brief word about security. MS Office, OpenOffice, Firebird, and Thunderbird are all reasonably secure as long as you follow standard procedures (install updates and patches as soon as they’re released, maintain firewalls, antivirus, and antispyware, etc). They involve different philosophies, however: while open-source tools let everyone know about possible security issues (allowing users to protect themselves and hackers to potentially exploit issues), Microsoft keeps any issues close to the vest (thus possibly preventing hackers from finding out about them, but forestalling users’ ability to take precautionary steps). It’s like the dilemma that arises each time police officers are faced with a serial killer: should they alert people and possibly make the perp move on to another community, or should they keep their investigation quiet and zero in on the guy? There are strong arguments for both approaches.

If you’re interested in OpenOffice and think it may be suitable for your needs, we have it available for purchase in our store.

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