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2011 October 17 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: There Are Office Suites Beyond Microsoft

If you buy a new PC, laptop, or netbook computer today, it probably comes preloaded with Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition. This is a significantly limited, advertising-laden version of Microsoft’s suite of productivity programs, Microsoft Office.

 Office 2010 Starter Edition includes only Word and Excel. Missing are PowerPoint, Access, Publisher, Outlook, and OneNote. Further, the versions of Word and Excel that Microsoft includes are scaled down from the regular versions, and they force you to view advertising while working on your documents.

 This continues the trend of PC makers providing ever more crippled versions of Microsoft’s productivity software with new PCs. Not long ago, most new PCs came preloaded with Microsoft Works, which included a complement of basic programs that didn’t subjugate you to advertising while you worked. Before this, many PC makers offered a full version of Microsoft Office.

 You do have the option today of upgrading a new PC to one of the full, ad-free versions of Microsoft Office, either before or after you buy the PC. This is made easy because what’s actually included on the PC is the full version, and what you obtain when upgrading is a product key — a combination of letters and numbers — to activate the full version.

 This of course costs, and despite just about everything else in the computer world decreasing in price over the years, Microsoft continues its longstanding practice of premium pricing.

 The upgrade to Microsoft Office Home and Student 2010, which includes the word processor Word, the spreadsheet program Excel, the presentation program PowerPoint and the information manager OneNote, typically costs $120. Its licensing, however, prohibits installation for business, nonprofit organization or government use.

 The upgrade to Microsoft Office Home and Business 2010, which includes the previous programs and adds the e-mail and calendar program Outlook, typically costs $200. And the upgrade to Microsoft Office Professional 2010, which includes the previous programs and adds the database program Access and the desktop publishing program Publisher, typically costs $350. Volume pricing is available to organizations.

 According to anecdotal evidence, including discussions online involving computer professionals as well as laypeople, more and more computer users are refusing to buy into such premium pricing, and excellent alternatives are available.

 Two basic types of Office alternatives exist: 1) Traditional office suites you download and install on your computer’s hard drive, and 2) “Cloud” office suites stored on remote servers that you use over the Internet through your Web browser.

The most talked about traditional Office alternative these days is LibreOffice (www.libreoffice.org). This is a descendent of OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org), which is still available and which became prominent in the early 2000s when Microsoft archrival Sun Microsystems promoted it as a free alternative to the expensive Microsoft Office.

 LibreOffice is not only based on OpenOffice but continues its free tradition. It’s made available by The Document Foundation, a nonprofit organization that receives funding from such companies as Novell, RedHat, Canonical and Google.

 Available in versions for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, LibreOffice consists of a range of Microsoft Office-compatible productivity programs, including a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation program, database management program, drawing program and math formula program.

 As of September 2011, The Document Foundation estimated that LibreOffice had 25 million users worldwide.

The leading cloud office suite is Google Docs (docs.google.com). Working within your Web browser, you can access a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation program, drawing program, and forms program for free. You can use any Web browser, though Google’s own Chrome browser works best.

 Google provides you with free storage of up to 1 gigabyte of data, with additional storage for a fee. Other limitations are a document size of 1 gigabyte or less, embedded image size of 2 megabytes or less, and spreadsheets limited to 256 columns, 200,000 rows, and 99 sheets.

 The biggest positive to Google Docs is its facility for creating and editing documents online while collaborating in real-time with other users. It’s also very useful for working on documents using different computers from different locations. Conveniently, it automatically saves documents to prevent data loss.

 The biggest negative to Google Docs is its relatively poor compatibility with Microsoft Office documents. It’s also not as feature-rich as LibreOffice. Further, Windows and Linux users report better experiences overall than Mac users. As with all cloud offerings, Google Docs requires you to be connected to the Internet in order to use it.

 More and more, the name of the game these days with digital devices is choice.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.


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