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Inside office productivity suites

Apr 07, 20034 mins
Microsoft OfficeRouters

Is now the time to break away from Microsoft Office?

Continuing last week’s evaluation of office technology, let’s turn to office productivity suites.

Microsoft Office owns the market, yet small and midsize companies have more reasons than ever to consider alternatives. The company’s recent licensing changes mean midsize firms are paying more for the same number of users, and small businesses are paying 10% to 20% more than previously. The good news? Competing suites can replace almost every Microsoft Office function — except in-line revisions and proprietary macros. Even if you custom-develop programs to utilize Microsoft Office internal routines, sometimes Microsoft changes so many internal details that you might be forced to reprogram those custom programs when you upgrade, which really frees you up to go with another vendor.

Microsoft’s new version of Office, tentatively called Office System 2003, is in beta testing now. So is Corel’s WordPerfect Office 11OpenOffice 1.1 and Sun’s StarOffice 6.1. OpenOffice was launched by StarOffice devotees who wanted the suite to remain open source and free after it was bought by Sun. I tested beta versions of OpenOffice 1.1 and WordPerfect 11.

For standard word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, both do a great job. Both read and write existing Microsoft Office file formats, but not every macro or multiauthor revision detail. Magazine and book publishers often rely heavily on the Microsoft Word revision feature, and Microsoft has hidden the file format details to keep them from working correctly in WordPerfect and OpenOffice. WordPerfect includes ways to convert some Word macros and Visual Basic programs, but complicated revisions between Word and WordPerfect remain out of reach. Once files are converted from Word for use in WordPerfect or OpenOffice, they work well.

Knowing they can’t replace Microsoft Word proprietary feature for proprietary feature, WordPerfect and OpenOffice offer other enticements. Fans of the older WordPerfect versions will rejoice to find the WordPerfect 5.1 interface now available, blue screen with white letters and all.

We’ve talked before about a utility that publishes documents in Adobe PDF to maintain constant formatting and make the file read only, and both suites include that function. Both also include the ability to read and write to XML files.

OpenOffice provides versions for Windows 95-XP, multiple versions of Linux, and Solaris Versions 7 and 8. It doesn’t seem as polished as WordPerfect, but both are still in beta. Corel promises to ship WordPerfect 11 in the spring, and OpenOffice 1.1 and StarOffice, which track each other closely, will each likely ship this summer.

“As polished” needs some explaining. OpenOffice and WordPerfect can handle the majority of jobs required by business users, particularly word processing. Neither offers as many custom programming options as Word, but they provide better security against hackers and viruses by not letting outside programs execute inside office suite applications.

Presentation and spreadsheet users will find all the power they’re used to in PowerPoint and Excel. Although the interfaces are quite different, standard functions match one for one. Personally, I like WordPerfect’s Presentation templates much better than Microsoft’s. Keep in mind, though, third-party tools for wireless integration and PDA exchange will always appear first for Microsoft Office.

Next, consider pricing. WordPerfect Office 11 should retail for $299 for new standard installation, with discounts for upgrades and educational users. WordPerfect Family Pack 4, including WordPerfect Version 10, Quattro Pro and some other goodies, costs $89 and provides the word processing and number crunching power many people need. Sun’s StarOffice costs $75 and is sold as boxed software. OpenOffice 1.1 is free for the downloading. (Note, it’s 60M bytes-plus.) In contrast, today’s Microsoft Office Standard Edition costs $479. Pricing for Office System 2003 hasn’t been announced.

One last thing to keep in mind: If you’re happy with the Microsoft Office version you have, there’s no reason to upgrade until support pricing or file format changes force you to. And when that day comes, you might want to check out the competition, too.