Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers

Many productivity application alternatives challenge the Microsoft juggernaut

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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 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 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, but you should be mindful of the fact.

The same rules about formatting and features apply with spreadsheets. Basic worksheets upload and render fine, but the more complex the document, the less chance you'll have of being able to work properly with the end result. The mortgage calculator spreadsheet, for instance, broke completely when uploaded, although simpler spreadsheets (no graphs) worked fine. Presentations fared about the same: The more complex the original document, the less chance of it being rendered in anything like a useful fashion. Transitions aren't preserved at all, which makes sense since they can't be added to presentations created in Docs itself anyway.

A major limitation of Google Docs is the fact that it's an in-browser application, with all of the possible behavior quirks that go with such a thing. An easy example: the trapping of keystrokes. If the document itself has focus and you press Ctrl-A, Google Docs interprets that as a command to select all the text in the document, which is to be expected. But if some other part of the window has focus -- maybe because of a stray mouse click -- then the browser's select-all function is invoked. This can be frustrating and further underscores the difference between a stand-alone application and a mix of HTML and JavaScript running in a Web browser. On top of that are all the quirks manifested by different browsers themselves, which after all this time is still an issue, I'm afraid.

One thing about Google Docs that I did appreciate is the way any document can be exported in a variety of common formats: Office, ODF, plain text, RTF, HTML, and PDF. This makes it an easy way to create those document types if all you have access to is a Web browser. I also liked the way multiple people can collaborate on a document in real time, a feature that will no doubt only become more useful and widely demanded over time.

Choosing an office suiteIf you're already on Microsoft Office 2007, an upgrade to Office 2010 won't be as crucial, but for those on previous versions of Office the changes -- and the new features -- are well worth looking into. and LibreOffice have remained competent but developmentally stagnant; they're useful as quick-and-dirty Microsoft Office substitutes, but tougher to use as full-blown, across-the-board replacements in places where institutional dependence on Office runs deep. IBM's Lotus Symphony, itself an derivative, takes the open source suite in a promising direction, but it too lacks certain features that would make it a true drop-in replacement.

SoftMaker Office comes remarkably close to being such a replacement and with a price and licensing terms that many people will find more agreeable than Microsoft Office's. Google Docs does accept a wide variety of common document types for import, but it's best used to compose original documents for HTML or PDF export -- and even then it's hidebound by the limits of what can be accomplished in a browser. Sadly, WordPerfect Office has become little more than a holding action, with too many legacy functions preserved across revisions and too few modern features to deserve a look.

The level of cross-compatibility between any two suites in this roundup varied wildly. Even Microsoft Office still has issues with OpenDocument formats, and the fidelity shown by the other suites when importing documents depends on what you expect to see preserved. SoftMaker Office did a consistently good job, but even it didn't catch everything. For native PDF creation, though, and its derivatives were at the head of the pack.

On the plus side, every application here -- including Office 2010 itself -- is available in a trial edition, which runs for enough time to give you a hands-on idea of how well documents convert and are handled. Because everyone's cache of documents is bound to be different, using a trial may ultimately be the most fruitful way to find out what you can switch to and to what extent.

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This story, "Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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