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More bad news for Microsoft: OpenOffice and EasyOffice.

The hidden reason why Microsoft Windows is the predominant operating system is Microsoft’s Office monopoly. Most readers know that WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 were the kings of office productivity software until the mid-’90s. They dominated because they were the most powerful and easiest to use programs available. For whatever reason, neither program worked well with Windows 3.1 (remember General Protection Faults?), and they both worked less well with Windows 95 (remember illegal operations?). Conspiracy types speculate that Microsoft was less than forthcoming in giving all the secret Windows Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to Lotus and the variety of companies that owned WordPerfect through the ’90s. Be that as it may, Word and Excel worked flawlessly with Win 3.1 and especially well with Win 95. Despite the fact that the programs themselves were not the easiest to use or necessarily the best, they began to dominate.

When Microsoft bundled Word and Excel with such programs as PowerPoint in the Office suite, it turned domination into monopoly. It has retained this monopoly because users need to share Office files with one another without losing the files’ formatting. Because you need Office to do office work, you need Windows (or the Mac). The Office monopoly is also why the suite costs the same as a low-end PC these days, driving the total cost of software acquisition far beyond hardware costs, despite the fact that hardware costs way more than software to produce.

That much you know. What you may not know is that there are two free Office alternatives that read and write files in Microsoft Office formats. We’re preparing to print a review of these two suites for our May issue. But this is a story that can’t wait for our long print cycles. So I’ll give you a synopsis.

OpenOffice is the open-source version of StarOffice 5.2. Sun released it to the public when it upgraded StarOffice to version 6. Since that time, the open-source community has made several improvements and enhancements to OpenOffice, making it easier to use, install, and configure for Windows and Office documents. In our review, it does everything Office can do except for Access and Outlook. Our reviewer, Joe DeRouen, says you can easily make the switch to one of the free SQL database programs, such as MySQL; and you can download Outlook Express for free. I’m not quite sure about this. I think it would be a major hassle to convert from Access to MySQL. And Outlook Express is not a viable solution for organizations that count on Outlook with Exchange. Despite these drawbacks, OpenOffice appears to be a good fit for those who don’t do Access and who use mail servers other than Exchange. And because the community just released a suite of programming tools for OpenOffice these holes could be filled sooner than you might think.

Joe is more effusive about EasyOffice, which is technically shareware, but has a free scaled-down version. EasyOffice compares favorably to Microsoft Office in every way, including database and e-mail programs. And Joe claims it’s much easier to work with. The only drawbacks he found were slight formatting issues when reading Excel documents. But he said they are not major enough to prevent him from paying the shareware fee ($30) rather than upgrading to Microsoft 3000 (which he reviewed in Beta recently). For those looking to save money on Office suites, EasyOffice appears to be the way to go.

In the big picture, widely available cheap or free Office alternatives that read and write Microsoft Office documents are a huge blow to Microsoft. In these lean times, it can no longer count on companies or users to automatically upgrade to the latest and greatest Office suite, and pay the huge premium. Long-term, as Linux on the desktop gets easier to use, available Linux Office alternatives that also read and write Office documents would remove the need for Windows. Investors in Microsoft have got to be nervous about the long-term viability of these two cash cows.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I want to correct something I wrote in my previous column, “A Quiet Giant.” I said that in Photoshop, you use Unsharp Mask to capture images from amorphous backgrounds. Several readers pointed out that in fact, you use a function called Capture to perform this task. What Unsharp Mask does is sharpen images. It is often used to sharpen captured figures after placing them on the new background. In my haste to shorten the column, I deleted the crucial step in the multistep process. I apologize for the error.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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