OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice, IBM Lotus Symphony, SoftMaker Office, Corel WordPerfect, and Google Docs challenge the Microsoft juggernaut
Ask most people to name a productivity suite and chances are they'll say Microsoft Office, but they might also name one of the numerous competitors that have sprung up. None have completely displaced the Microsoft monolith, but they've made inroads.
Most of the competition has positioned itself as being better by being cheaper. SoftMaker Office has demonstrated you don't always need to pay Microsoft's prices to get some of the same quality, while OpenOffice.org proved you might not need to pay anything at all. Meanwhile, services like Google Docs are available for anyone with an Internet connection.
[ Also on InfoWorld: "10 great free desktop productivity tools that aren't OpenOffice.org" | "Great Office 2010 features for business" | Follow the latest Windows developments in InfoWorld's Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]
Microsoft's response has been to issue the newest version of Office (2010) in three retail editions with slightly less ornery pricing than before, as well as a free, ad-supported version (Microsoft Office Starter Edition) that comes preloaded on new PCs. Despite the budget-friendly competition, Office continues to sell, with Microsoft claiming back in January that one copy of Office 2010 is sold somewhere in the world every second. (Full disclosure: The author of this review recently bought a copy for his own use.)
How well do the alternatives shape up? And how practical is it to switch to them when you have an existing array of documents created in Microsoft Office? Those are the questions I had in mind when I sat down with both the new version of Microsoft Office and several other programs (and one cloud service) that have been positioned as low- or no-cost replacements.
Microsoft Office 2010Despite all efforts to dethrone it, Microsoft Office remains the de facto standard for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and to a high degree, corporate email. Other programs may have individual features that are better implemented, but Microsoft has made the whole package work together, both across the different programs in the suite and in Windows itself, with increasing care and attention in each revision.
If you avoided Office 2007 because of the radical changes to the interface -- namely, the ribbon that replaced the conventional icon toolbars -- three years' time might change your mind. First, the ribbon's no longer confined to Office only; it shows up in many other programs and isn't as alien as before. Second, Microsoft addressed one major complaint about the ribbon -- that it wasn't customizable -- and made it possible in Office 2010 for end-users to organize the ribbon as freely as they did their legacy toolbars. I'm irked Microsoft didn't make this possible with the ribbon from the start, but at least it's there now.
Finally, the ribbon is now implemented consistently in Office 2010. Whereas Outlook 2007 displayed the ribbon only when editing messages, Outlook 2010 uses the ribbon throughout. (The rest of Outlook has also been streamlined a great deal; the thicket of settings and submenus has been pruned down a bit and made easier to traverse.) One feature that would be hugely useful is a type-to-find function for the ribbon; there is an add-in that accomplishes this, but having it as a native feature would be great.
Aside from the interface changes, Office 2007's other biggest alteration was a new XML-based document format. Office 2010 keeps the new format but expands backward- and cross-compatibility, as well as native handling of OpenDocument Format (ODF) documents -- the .odt, .ods, and .odp formats used by OpenOffice.org. When you open a legacy Word .doc or .rtf file, for instance, the legend "[Compatibility Mode]" appears in the window title. This means any functions not native to that document format are disabled, so edits to the document can be reopened without problems in earlier versions of Office.
Note that ODF documents don't trigger compatibility mode, since Office 2010 claims to have a high degree of compatibility between the two. The problem is "high degree" doesn't always mean perfect compatibility. If you highlight a passage in an ODF document while in Word 2010, OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice recognize the highlighting. But if you highlight in OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice, Word 2010 interprets the highlighting as merely a background color assignment for the selected text.
Exporting to HTML is, sadly, still messy; Word has never been good at exporting simple HTML that preserves only basic markup. Also, exporting to PDF is available natively, but the range of options in Word's PDF export module is very narrow compared to that of OpenOffice.org.
Many other little changes throughout Office 2010 ease daily work. I particularly like the way the "find" function works in Word now, where all the results in a given document are shown in a navigation pane. This makes it far easier to find that one occurrence of a phrase you're looking for. Excel has some nifty new ways to represent and manipulate data: Sparklines, little in-cell charts that usefully display at-a-glance visualizations of data; and data slicers, multiple-choice selectors that help widen or narrow the scope of the data you're looking at. PowerPoint lets you broadcast a presentation across the Web (via Microsoft's PowerPoint Broadcast Service, the use of which comes free with a PowerPoint license) or save a presentation as a video.
One last feature is worth mentioning as a possible future direction for all products in this vein. Office users who also have a SharePoint server can now collaborate in real time on Word, PowerPoint, or Excel documents. Unfortunately, SharePoint is way out of the reach of most casual users. But given how many professional-level features in software generally have percolated down to the end-user level, I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft eventually adds real-time collaboration, perhaps through Windows Live Mesh, as a standard feature.
Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: OpenOffice.org 3.3.0OpenOffice.org has long been a commonly suggested replacement for Microsoft Office. It offers several common office-suite features at a much lower price -- free -- than Microsoft Office itself, although many of those individual features don't have the level of polish or advancement found in commercial office-suite products. That said, for people who don't need the absolute latest and greatest functionality in every category, OpenOffice.org is a solid piece of software. (In the interest of full disclosure, again, I admit I have been frustrated by its limitations, but I can recognize that for many other people it will more than do the job.)
Don't be thrown off if you come to OpenOffice.org from the Microsoft Office side. The program's UI is very vintage 2003 -- dockable toolbars instead of the newer ribbon/tab metaphors that are now all the rage. That said, future versions of OpenOffice.org may sport a more modern look, although this is still very much under wraps -- nothing more than mock-up designs of such a UI have surfaced yet.
OpenOffice.org's word processor, Writer, most closely resembles Microsoft Word from (again) 2003 or so. What's interesting is how despite the older look and feel, a few of Writer's features predate similar items found in current versions of Word. Example: The export-to-PDF function, which has many more options (security, user-interface settings) than Word 2010's own native exporter. Many of the document handling functions -- for example, the treatment of sections, subdocuments, styles, and formatting -- are on a par with Word.
Especially interesting is the word-completion function. Words longer than 10 letters (this value is customizable) are automatically collected in a list. If you start to type something that OpenOffice.org thinks is one of those words, it offers a suggestion. Press Enter to apply the suggestion or continue typing to ignore it. I found it annoying at first because it wasn't trained for my word choices, but over time -- and in longer, particularly verbose documents -- it became quite useful. Naturally, this whole feature can be disabled if you don't like it.
The real shortcomings, for me, are in the grammar and spelling tools. The built-in thesaurus and spell-checker aren't bad, but there's nothing here on the level of Microsoft Word's context-sensitive spelling and grammar checking system. Also, OpenOffice.org doesn't have a native grammar-checking mechanism; grammar-checking tools need to be plugged in through the program's add-on system. To that end, the most commonly used grammar add-on for OpenOffice.org, LanguageTool, is available as a download, but its trapping of language issues is spotty. Some obvious mistakes, like blatant sentence fragments, slide right through, while other legitimate uses of language are flagged; for example, the term "cant," meaning jargon or insincere talk, is assumed to be "can't." Those weaned on Word's grammar tools may find this a major step down, as I did.
The other major shortcoming is what happens to Microsoft-format documents after they're edited in OpenOffice.org and passed back to the original user. The older .doc format is preserved more or less intact, but the newer .docx format is not handled nearly as well.
The spreadsheet application, Calc, uses the OASIS OpenFormula standard for its formulas rather than Excel's own. That said, someone with Excel experience sitting down with Calc shouldn't have too much trouble -- many common functions, such as SUM(), are identical across both programs. What's trickier is when you use existing Excel documents in Calc. The more sophisticated the spreadsheet, the less likely it is to open or function correctly. A fairly complex home-mortgage calculator only partly worked (the graph in the middle of the sheet didn't display or auto-update), although my own home-expense spreadsheets with minimal formulas work fine.
For most people (me included) Impress, the presentation app, will work as a drop-in replacement for PowerPoint. The vast majority of the essential features you'd expect to find in a presentation program are all here: transitions, master-page formats for slides, the ability to show presentations on one display and read your own notes on another, a handout-page designer, and -- most useful -- exporting to HTML with a variety of presentation options. Again, the main caveat here is how well the program opens and displays existing presentations created in PowerPoint. The more complex the presentation, the more likely it is to display incorrectly. Here again, try opening some existing .ppt/.pptx files before you commit to anything. Also, some presentations that didn't import correctly as .pptx files worked fine -- including animation and transitions -- when resaved from Office 2010 into .ppt format and imported into OpenOffice.org.
OpenOffice.org comes in a variety of packages and alternative editions, such as the PortableApps version that can be run from a flash drive or external hard drive without needing to be formally installed. Installing OpenOffice.org across a Windows-centric organization will require some heavy lifting. The OpenOffice.org wiki has some documentation on how to do this, but it hasn't been updated since version 2.x; a thread in the OpenOffice.org support forums talks about how to deploy 3.x across Windows machines.
Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: LibreOffice 3.3.1I mentioned in the OpenOffice.org review how that program has been repackaged in a number of different editions, all based on the original but with various alterations or improvements. The most significant such edition of OpenOffice.org is LibreOffice, created by a number of former OpenOffice.org developers. Dissatisfied with the way the OpenOffice.org project was being led by Oracle after that company bought Sun (OpenOffice.org's chief patron), the developers decamped and started work on their own edition of the program. If you have a choice between either one, go with LibreOffice -- it's everything OpenOffice.org is, but somewhat more refined. I plan on keeping an eye on how the suite shapes up over time.
Since LibreOffice is derived directly from OpenOffice.org, the major features are almost entirely identical. What's different is mostly under-the-hood and behind-the-scenes changes, but they add up quickly. For one, LibreOffice incorporates fixes that were developed for another OpenOffice.org spinoff, Go-OO, many of which revolved around document-compatibility functions or application performance. Another major addition in LibreOffice is bundled support for many languages, including spell-checking and grammar tools.
This does increase the size of the installer -- 158MB for OpenOffice.org vs. 218MB for LibreOffice -- but people with decently speedy Internet connections shouldn't feel much of a pinch. A slew of extensions are also bundled with LibreOffice, like the Presenter Console for Impress, which adds some more controls for how presentations are displayed.
Most of the work being done with LibreOffice right now seems incremental rather than revolutionary: a different set of icons, a few tweaks to the display. The under-the-hood changes that make the most outward difference are various performance improvements, originally devised for the Go-OO spinoff of OpenOffice.org (work on which has since been discontinued in favor of LibreOffice). No performance testing is needed to prove this; on the same hardware, LibreOffice does indeed launch and open documents noticeably faster than OpenOffice.org.
Other improvements also show themselves with a little hands-on usage. Spreadsheets in LibreOffice can now handle up to 1 million rows, versus 65,536 rows in OpenOffice.org -- handy if you're used to using Excel as an impromptu browser for database dumps. The LibreOffice suite has noticeably better handling of WordPerfect documents and includes import filters for SVG, Lotus Word Pro, and Microsoft Works files. These may seem like minor points to boast about, but they're useful to an organization that has a lot of legacy documents and wants to be able to read them accurately.
One notable change: In the Windows edition, help documents for the suite are now provided by default through the LibreOffice online wiki, rather than a local help file. This is dependent on the presence of an Internet connection; if you don't have one, pressing F1 causes a browser to launch and generate an error page. The local help file can be downloaded and added separately, though, if you plan on needing help when offline.
If you're an IT admin -- or just curious -- you can enable an "experimental mode" within LibreOffice that turns on features designated as unstable in the current version. Right now there are few features exposed through this function; the most notable is an interactive in-document formula editor.
Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0Don't let the name fool you. IBM's Lotus Symphony suite has almost nothing to do with the earlier incarnations of the Lotus Symphony suite -- it's now a rebranded spin-off of OpenOffice.org, with a heavily reworked interface courtesy of IBM's programmers. It also features only three applications from the OpenOffice.org suite, but they're the ones that matter: word processor, spreadsheet, and presentations.
Launch Symphony and you'd scarcely know you were dealing with anything derived from OpenOffice.org at all. The look of the program is markedly different and, in my opinion, substantially more attractive. Open a word processing document, for instance, and you'll see a familiar toolbar along the top, but also a set of slide-out panels to the right of the text area: text properties, a document explorer/organizer, clip art, text styles, and a Widgets window. Also, multiple documents opened within Symphony are now organized as tabs within a single window by default, although you can undock them into their own window by right-clicking the relevant tab and selecting "Open in new window."
The Widgets panel lets you add various Internet-based services -- Google Gadgets or other Web pages -- into that window for reference or access to online applications. The usefulness of this feature is a little unclear, but it seems like it's being positioned as an open-ended version of the reference panel that's used in Word for translations, word definitions, and more.
One omission that would have been handy is support for the enhanced right-click context menu available through the Windows 7 Taskbar and Start menu. This typically provides access to recently used documents or common program functions. OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice don't have this either, but IBM could have easily added this extra bit of system integration while it was redesigning the rest of the program's look.
While Symphony may look different, most of its features (apart from obviously new things like the Widgets panel) and their behavior are almost identical to the OpenOffice.org counterparts. Anyone who has cut his or her teeth on the former program shouldn't have trouble figuring out how Symphony works. Most of the menus sport the same option sets, and utilities like the Template Organizer behave the same way.
Many of the new features that have come to Symphony 3.0 are courtesy of the new OpenOffice.org code base -- such as support for Microsoft Office VBA macros, or the Detective (dependency and debug tracer) for spreadsheet equations. Symphony can open most Office 2007 documents -- although you get a warning that some documents may not render with total fidelity. A number of files I tried, like the mortgage calculator spreadsheet I tested with OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice, opened but had the same issues as with those two programs. Password-protected Word and Excel files can also be opened, but only if they're saved in the Office 97-2003 binary format; password-protected Office 2007 XML-format files can't be opened.
The relatively stripped-down focus of Symphony means some features found in OpenOffice.org proper aren't found here. WordPerfect users looking to open their documents in Symphony are likely to be let down; support for WordPerfect documents is not included and is not available through the plug-in directory either. Format conversion also doesn't seem as well-supported in Symphony as it does in OpenOffice.org. When I couldn't open an .html document, I looked for a plug-in to allow that. The closest I could find was an output filter that saves ODF as a .html document and a plug-in that converts .html files to ODF spreadsheets (not text documents), but no import filter. To that end, those already using ODF as their standard document format will find Symphony a lot more accommodating.
Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: SoftMaker Office 2010For several years now, SoftMaker Office has been accruing a reputation as a low-cost replacement for the Microsoft Office product line. It's indeed much cheaper than Office 2010: $79 to Office's $149, $279, or $499 (the MSRPs for the Home and Student, Home and Business, and Professional versions, respectively). For those who don't exclusively require Word, it's a very strong contender. It's also been written with much more of an eye toward integration with Windows than the OpenOffice.org family; for example, the Windows 7 Taskbar jump lists are supported.
The suite features replacements for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in much the same way that IBM Lotus Symphony strips the OpenOffice.org suite down to its three most essential programs. A single copy of the program can be used on up to three PCs, with no copy protection or other restrictions. Academic pricing ($34.95 per copy) is also available, but there's no need to purchase different versions of the program for work and home.
The best way to see SoftMaker Office's much-vaunted document compatibility in action is to grab the 30-day trial version of the product, open documents in it side-by-side with your existing program, and see how they look. SoftMaker Office has its own native document formats for each program, but it does a strikingly sound job of reading and interpreting Office's native formats. It can also handle some of the OpenDocument formats used by OpenOffice.org.
TextMaker, SoftMaker's word processor, is the most likely place to start testing how well the suite works with your existing files. With most every document I threw at it from my own collection, everything from relatively complex style-driven formatting to annotations and corrections was preserved. The programmers also took the trouble to make many individual features behave like their counterparts in Microsoft Office, such as the way corrections can be viewed in a callout pane to the side of the text. OpenOffice.org and its derivatives do the same thing, but often lose the name of whoever submitted a given correction. TextMaker preserved the names properly (as did Symphony's word processor). Details like this position TextMaker as that much more attractive to users who care about preserving document fidelity.
PlanMaker, the suite's spreadsheet program, supports up to 65,536 rows and works with both older and newer Excel documents. It opened existing spreadsheets better than any of the OpenOffice.org variants, but I still ran into some hitches. When I opened the mortgage calculator spreadsheet, it displayed the charts properly but didn't recalculate the charts when I changed the data. Even forcing a recalculation of the charts from the program menu didn't work. Also, PlanMaker doesn't open OpenDocument-format spreadsheets (.ods), though TextMaker opens word processing documents in the OpenDocument format (.odt).
SoftMaker Presentations had some similar file format hitches. PowerPoint 2007/2010 presentations (.pptx) are not yet supported, and neither are OpenDocument presentation files (.odp), but files in the older PowerPoint (.ppt) format load and run very well. In-slide animation and transitions also work. One key omission from Presentations is the lack of a feature like PowerPoint's synchronized multiscreen presentation mode. This allows a presenter to run the presentation on one display, such as a projector, while having his notes for the presentation visible on his notebook display. With Presentations, it is possible to run the slideshow on one display while manually browsing the notes for the presentation on another, but it's not quite the same.
All SoftMaker Office applications use a scripting language that's based on Microsoft's own VBA for application automation, and the suite includes an editor (BasicMaker) for creating and debugging scripts. Note that while SoftMaker's scripting language is similar to VBA, this doesn't mean existing Office documents with VBA automation can be used as-is. You'd have to export the code from those documents, reimport it into BasicMaker, and then modify it line by line. I did like the program's PDF exporter, which is on a par with OpenOffice.org's excellent tool.
Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: Corel WordPerfect Office X5There was a time, in the DOS days, when WordPerfect was for many professionals the word processing program. Law offices still swear by it, since it's heavily backward compatible with previous versions and has features that appeal to legal professionals.
WordPerfect has since been made part of a suite that contains the Quattro Pro spreadsheet (originally from Borland) and Corel's own Presentations application. The newest version of the suite, WordPerfect Office X5 (or version 15), was released in 2010, and has little to attract users from other suites. It's slightly less expensive than Office 2010 -- the home version is $99 and runs on up to three PCs -- but SoftMaker Office and the various OpenOffice.org derivatives all offer more.
When you launch WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, or Presentations, the first thing you see is the Workspace Manager -- a way to automatically set the program's look and the menu options to one of a number of included templates depending on the user's preferences. Aside from the standard WordPerfect mode, there's Microsoft Word mode, which includes a toolbar of document compatibility options and a sidebar that gives you quick access to common document functions; WordPerfect Classic mode, which emulates the white-on-blue look of the old DOS-era WordPerfect and even the macros of same; and WordPerfect Legal mode, which brings up toolbars related to legal documents.
If you open anything other than native WordPerfect documents, the program runs a conversion filter first, a process that can take anywhere from a fraction of a second to a minute or two depending on the file size and source format. The conversion process for OpenDocument word processing (.odt) documents, even small ones, is much slower than for Word files (.doc or .docx), and as with the other programs here the level of fidelity for document conversion will vary widely. For instance, inline comments from both Word and .odt documents were preserved, but any information about who had made specific comments didn't seem to survive the conversion.
The mortgage calculator spreadsheet loaded in Quattro, but just barely. The charts didn't display any values, and the sheet itself lost most of its functionality; most of the cell formulas didn't work. While I was able to get an existing PowerPoint presentation to import, the transitions were all replaced with simple wipes and many presentation details (such as the aspect ratios of slides) didn't translate accurately. That's where file format support ends -- WordPerfect Office can't open spreadsheets or presentations in Office 2007/2010 or OpenDocument formats.
Most of what drew people to WordPerfect in the first place has been aggressively preserved across the many versions of the program. Take the way WordPerfect deals with document formatting: The user can inspect the formatting markup for a document in great detail and edit it directly. It's a great feature.
But the general stagnancy of the program is off-putting, like the fact that WordPerfect still doesn't support Unicode after all this time. Open a document with both Western and non-Western text and you don't even see gibberish -- non-Western text simply doesn't display. For this and many other reasons, WordPerfect Office X5 is unlikely to appeal beyond WordPerfect's existing user base.
Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: Google DocsIt may seem odd to include a SaaS offering in this mix, but SaaS applications have been repeatedly positioned as challengers to desktop applications, and Google Docs is one of the most visible incarnations of same. It's improved enormously since its original incarnations, but I'm still skeptical of using it for anything more than fairly rudimentary work. The feature set is extremely basic, and the limitations of what can be accomplished within a Web browser hinder you all the more.
Google Docs can work one of two ways: as a creator for new documents (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings) or an importer for existing ones in many common formats (Word, Excel, ODF, PDF, and so on). The formatting of newly created documents is limited but stable. You can download Google Docs documents in Office and ODF formats, and you won't run into compatibility problems or document degradation when opening them in Office or OpenOffice.org. Documents imported from outside translate reasonably well, but only up to a point, and there's often not much way to tell what will be preserved without importing a file and inspecting it by hand. It's best if you don't intend to rely heavily on fidelity to the original document and just need to examine the text itself.
The feature mix for text documents in Google Docs is useful, but very limited. A document can feature headers, footers, footnotes, and tables of contents -- but no indices. There's apparently no way to edit the underlying style sheet for a document or create new style declarations, so formatting has to be done by hand. Page numbers are handled very awkwardly -- they can be added only when you print a document and at no other time.
Many of the little quirks I observed when working with imported text documents are reminiscent of the problems that can creep in when switching between Word and OpenOffice.org. If a Word document has formatting stored in its master template (paragraph spacing, the default font, and so on), they don't show up consistently when the document is imported into Google Docs. Since this can happen with other programs, this is probably not a limitation of Docs per se, bu
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