NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, September 2008
My Favorite FREE PC Software Part 4 - Office Suite
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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In an ongoing effort to help out my loyal readers in these trying economic times, I am continuing to report on excellent quality software that can successfully compete with its commercial counterparts, but is available to the user at no charge. In this column I will discuss a full-featured office suite that has millions of loyal users, but can be freely downloaded and used by anyone. Many of us have been irritated by Microsofts nearly monopoly pricing of its Office suite, and have vowed to use an alternative suite if one became available. Third party commercial software publishers, such as Corel and its WordPerfect suite, have produced some excellent quality office suites which, despite a typical price advantage, have been unable to significantly crack Microsofts Offices virtual monopoly of office suites. Perhaps a comprehensive office suite, which can read and write files formatted in Microsofts Office formats, but available to all totally for free, could provide the user with a powerful and most cost effective (free) alternative to Microsofts expensive Office suite. This free alternative, currently available for download as version 2.41 of OpenOffice (openoffice.org) would be a very worthy download, and provide any user of office services with a powerful office suite.

OpenOffice is not new, and has been available for a few years. In its lifetime, it has developed a very loyal following of millions of users around the world, including schools and colleges, businesses, non-profits, home users, government agencies, and other consumers of office suites. The current stable download is version 2.41, but for those who would like to try the newest and latest iteration, there is a version 3.0 beta 2 available for download. OpenOffice is a full featured office suite, which can read and write almost all popular office formats, including Microsofts. This suite contains a powerful word processor, simply called Writer. A word processor is arguably one of the most frequently used office components, and Writer is feature rich, and uses an interface that would be familiar to Microsoft Word users. In my personal experience with Writer, there was a virtual zero learning curve when I first used Writer, but I was familiar with Word. I have not been able to easily find a feature in recent versions of Word that is lacking in Writer; in fact I have not found a word processing task that can not be accomplished with Writer. For those who like to tweak their software and add additional features, there are dozens of free extensions or free plug-ins for writer. These extensions include specialized dictionaries, hundreds of business templates (fill in the blank sample documents), and many others, all available for free download. Writer can more than adequately meet almost any conceivable word processing task.

I have used a variety of spreadsheets over time, in the PC realm including Lotus 123, Quattro (my early favorite), and Excel. OpenOffice includes a comprehensive spreadsheet called Calc that can read and write spreadsheet formats from most competitive products. As with Writer, experienced users of other spreadsheets can open Calc and be immediately productive, without any significant learning curve, as the interface will be familiar. Calc supports graphics, charts, sounds, annotations, and virtually all of the other features of its expensive commercial competitors. Calc, an integral part of the OpenOffice suite, should be strongly considered before paying any license or upgrade fees for another competitive product. Since OpenOffice is free for anyone to download and use, it would be worthy of a try.

I do a lot of presentations using Microsofts PowerPoint, primarily because that is what is already installed on computers that I may be provided. I am not too proud to let you in on a sneaky little secret; I have composed some of my presentations on OpenOffices Impress, rather than Microsofts PowerPoint and no one noticed the difference! Impress is the free competitor to PowerPoint, and as with other OpenOffice components, has a familiarity to it that users of PowerPoint will immediately recognize. Another sneaky secret is that I have on a few occasions used Impress to resolve some slide, sound, and display problems that were frustrating PowerPoint users. For users who desire to create very professional appearing presentations, but not incur the costs of a commercial product such as PowerPoint, Impress would be an outstanding choice.

An office suite typically contains more than a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program, and OpenOffice is no different. It also includes a powerful and compatible database program (Base), a drawing program (Draw), a charting program (Chart), and an equation editor (Math). Compared to its pricey competitors, there is not much lacking in the free OpenOffice. For those who want extra power and features in any of the components, OpenOffice has hundreds of extensions and other program add-ons that can be freely downloaded and installed.

There are also several administrative advantages to using OpenOffice, and these include the utter lack of administering and renewing licenses in compliance with often complicated and expensive software management. OpenOffice is free to copy and distribute, and may be used by anyone at home, work, school, or anywhere else. Teachers can freely distribute copies to their students; employers can freely distribute copies to employees for both home and office use; schools and colleges can freely install OpenOffice in offices and computer labs, and provide copies to anyone who asks. Personally, I have given copies to many of my students without any fear of violating any copyrights.

For those who want a primary office suite without the cost, OpenOffice would be an excellent choice. For those who already have a commercial office suite (or just a single component), but would like to review a free alternative that complies with the latest international standards of compatibility and document formats, OpenOffice would be a wise choice. Visit OpenOffice.org and see for yourself one of the most powerful suites available anywhere for free.

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