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Monday 22 September 2014

Seeking out free alternatives to dominant Microsoft Office

Rohit Thakral

Published 17/07/2014 | 02:30

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How should Ireland respond to the Microsoft decision?


Office suites are a common software feature of practically any business today. Indeed it's hard to imagine that any company in Ireland - or anywhere else in the world for that matter - might not have one.

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Throughout the years there has been one clear leader in the office suite business, Microsoft Office. A household name, it features applications such as Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access. But just because Microsoft is synonymous with this market, you shouldn't rule out free or low-cost competitors like LibreOffice and Open Office. Here we'll look at the pros and cons of each.

Microsoft Office 2013

Cost: €200 onwards

Pros: Easy to us, clean user interface and all applications have strong consumer support via Microsoft as well as thousands of tutorials available online. It also has new features, such as 'Read' mode in Word for better use. It features easier content creation including new features to make inserting rich media easier. It also has clearly defined volume licensing suites which makes choosing the right package simple. Lastly, it's available on Windows and Mac.

Cons: It's relatively expensive. It also has user interface issues as Microsoft Office continues to push towards tablet style interfaces, which seem a bit clunky on a standard desktop or laptop.

Summary: Microsoft Office is the world's leading office suite software and is probably considered to be an essential element of any Windows-based computer.

Apache Open Office

Cost: Free

Pros: It's free and there's no ongoing licence fee, either. There's also considerable freedom of choice, while it provides alternatives to every Microsoft application in its Office suite. This includes 'Writer' for Word, 'Calc' for Excel, 'Impress' for PowerPoint and 'Base' for Access. It reads all competitors' files ('doc/docx', 'xls/xlxs', 'ppt/pptx' and more). It's available for Windows, Linux and Mac. Finally, it's also a mature product with over 20 years of development, meaning it's not an experiment.

Cons: There are one or two usability challenges. If you're a Microsoft Office user, it's slightly different from what you have seen and used so far. That doesn't mean it is bad, but you will have to retrain a little. There are also compatibility issues, in that there is not quite 100pc between Microsoft products and Open Office. These are two different products from two different companies and hence they are meant to be different. There is also no user level support, meaning if you are a home office user, you are at the mercy of online forums and if you are a business user you need to arrange support for your staff through an Open Office expert or an IT-support company.

Summary: You can easily operate word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases and more with this. It is available in many languages and works on all common computers. It stores all your data in an international open standard format and can also read and write files from other common office software packages. It can be downloaded and used completely free of charge for any purpose.

LibreOffice

Cost: Free

Pros: It's free and it runs runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. It has unrivalled import and export features that allow users to open and save almost any document format imaginable. Its user interface is probably superior to Open Office and other open source rivals, partly because it's more actively developed than Open Office with features such as PDF import, presentation minimiser and a Wiki publisher. It also has the ability to expand functionality with extensions and templates.

Cons: Certain applications, such as Calc are prone to crashing if too much data is inputed at once. There's also a lack of add-ins. Like OpenOffice, user support is restricted to what you find on forums unless you have an IT company that can provide training and support to your staff. There are also integration issues between LibreOffice and MS Office. For example, the table margins in MS Word docs can become distorted.

Summary: Developed by The Document Foundation, the LibreOffice suite is a fork of OpenOffice, meaning the underlying source code is the same, but the software has gone in a different development direction. It is considered to be more dynamic and user friendly than OpenOffice.

Rohit Thakral is a DIT graduate and chief executive of Dublin-based Target Integration, an open source software company that specialises in providing CRM and ERP software www.targetintegration

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