Everybody but Microsoft

* To counter the company’s Office System 2003 marketing blitz, a look at cheap and free alternatives

Microsoft just spent $150 million to trumpet its new Office System 2003. But before you spend as much as $500 to buy it, consider that few of the suite’s improvements are geared to small businesses. XML support benefits only firms with experienced programmers integrating server back-end processes to client applications. Improvements to the Outlook e-mail client are numerous, but only raise it to the level of Eudora and Netscape clients. The most interesting new product, a free-form text processor called OneNote, costs $200 extra.

So instead, let’s look at the alternatives. 

The new version of OpenOffice 1.1 is free for download. The suite has improved Microsoft compatibility, so nearly all features from a Word document work properly, with the exception of macros run inside Word. The security risks from active code hiding inside your documents are too numerous to allow any vendor except Microsoft to include that “feature.”

Sun’s StarOffice is essentially OpenOffice with corporate packaging and support. Single copies start at $80 and volume purchasing drops the cost to $25 for 10,000. If you go to the user group page (www.staroffice.com) you'll see a great deal: $60 for StarOffice 7 as well as the Lindows OS (Linux).  Microsoft Office users will need only about 15 minutes to comfortably use StarOffice and Lindows.

Software602 has been making Word and Excel look-alike programs for years. Thirty dollars buys you word processor and spreadsheet capabilities, along with image management tools and other goodies. I’ve tested these in the past - a Word user will feel at home immediately and be able to work with the majority of his or her Office files. Software602’s LAN Suite includes e-mail servers and a variety of other useful applications.

A free Word-replacement option is AbiWord, a cross-platform word processor from Abisource. If you spend most of your time word processing, this works well and supports a variety of operating systems.

Aiming for ease of use rather than Office clones, the Easy Office Premium office suite ($40, less with volume) from e-press includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software, contact manager, database, e-mail client and more.

Mobile users may like ThinkFree's office suite (starting at $50 per year) with an online component for file storage. Any Internet-enabled computer will connect you to Office-compatible applications and your files.

If you need a better e-mail client but don't think Outlook justifies buying Office you have several options. Download the AOL-backed Netscape 7.1 browser and e-mail or Mozilla (the open source version of Netscape). I prefer the tabbed browsing pages of Netscape and Mozilla over Internet Explorer, so give them a try, and tell me what you think. Both products offer flexible e-mail clients with spam controls galore. AOL will keep Netscape as a bargaining chip with Microsoft if nothing else, and Mozilla now has its own development community.

Eudora provided one of the earliest and consistently excellent e-mail clients and still does so from under the QualComm umbrella. Fifty bucks gets you the complete version without ads or nags to upgrade.

Those of you intrigued by the free-form idea generator and organizer OneNote should take a look at PersonalBrain from TheBrain Technologies. It offers more flexibility and connection options than OneNote, and you can add server versions to turn all users into Brainiacs.

Another visual idea generator is MindMap ($100) from ConceptDraw Systems. The company also offers standard presentation and medical diagram creation software.

Visually oriented thinkers should speak up if you want me to discuss the whole mind mapping thought process and tools to support them. (I wrote about Scopeware back in January, see editorial link below.) Some people love the visual aspect while others get frustrated. Either way, if you want to check out new ways of gathering and organizing your thoughts, you don’t have to buy Microsoft’s One Note to do so.

Redmond gets all the headlines, but if saving money means more to you than keeping up with Microsoft, check some of these options and let me know what you think.

Learn more about this topic

602PC Suite

OpenOffice.org 1.1 Office Suite

E-press

AbiWord

ConceptDraw V

The Brain

Mozilla

Netscape

Data management for visual learners

Network World, 01/13/03

Rethinking Outlook

Network World, 05/19/03

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.