By Jay Garmon
If you’re buying a PC this holiday season, virtually every vendor will try to up-sell you a license for some version of Microsoft Office 2007. Not only should you not buy MS Office 2007, you shouldn’t pay for any office productivity suite this year. Here are five reasons why.
1. Microsoft Office 2010 went into beta release this week. This means we’re only a few months away from the proper release of Office 2010 — so you’d be effectively paying full price for a three-year-old app if you buy MS Office 2007 today — but you can snag a free beta copy of MS 2010 right now. More importantly, Office 2010 has a number of new features worth waiting six or seven months to use, not the least of which is a revised ribbon interface that should prove much less jarring to those of us familiar with Office’s old-school menu layout. Don’t shell out full price for the old Office when the new one will be out by summer.
2. Office Web Apps limited beta goes live with the regular Office beta, offering you hosted online versions of Office 2010 for free. And these apps stay free. Even when Office 2010 formally launches next year, the Office Web Apps will remain totally free for use; you’ll just need a Microsoft Live account, which all MSN and Hotmail users already have. If you’re comfortable with storing your documents online and running your word processing through a browser, there’s no reason you should ever pay for an office productivity suite for the foreseeable future. Our only word of caution: Just like with Outlook Web Access, Internet Explorer users will get a much richer Office Web Apps experience than FireFox, Chrome, Safari or Opera users. That said, Office Web Apps will play on alternate operating systems — looking at you, Mac and Linux users — from day one.
3. OpenOffice 3.1 is a free, open source knock-off of Microsoft Office, and it doesn’t have that pesky ribbon interface Microsoft forced down our throats in Office 2007. (For the record, I like the ribbon interface, but Microsoft handled its introduction rather poorly. Germany blitzkrieged Poland with more subtlety, warning, and tact.) As I’ve written elsewhere, OpenOffice is the cover band to MS Office’s headliner; extremely familiar and satisfying, but it doesn’t feel exactly like the real thing. Luckily, you won’t pay full cover price, or any price, for OpenOffice, as it’s absolutely free. OpenOffice 3.1 has a robust feature set nearly equal to MS Office’s seemingly endless list of bells of whistles, and OpenOffice can handle as many if not more file formats as Office, including Office 2007 and 2010.
4. Google Docs is the original item that the Office Web Apps are trying to copy. If you’ve got a Gmail account, you’ve got access to Google’s free online office suite. Unlike OpenOffice, this freebie isn’t feature-rich. In fact, Google Docs have been stripped to the bone, feature-wise, and most documents are limited to a one megabyte file size. You won’t be writing novels or running mass spreadsheet calculations on Google Docs. Where Google Docs excels (spreadsheet pun unintended) is in document-sharing. Whatever you store in Google Docs you can access from any Internet-connected PC, but so can anyone to whom you grant access, either as a viewer or a collaborating editor. Group projects are infinitely easier in Google Docs, as a single URL allows the whole team to read from and write to the same document with no laborious e-mailing of files. Version tracking is breeze with a robust document history, and Google Docs can import, export, and publish virtually any document you throw at it (so long as you don’t run Macros). Also, Google Docs has the same operating system-agnostic pedigree as the Office Web Apps, but without the Internet Explorer favoritism.
5. Zoho, Thinkfree, IBM Lotus Symphony, and several more free office productivity suites are lurking out there. Some, like Zoho, are online-only. Others, like Symphony, are traditional software. Still others, like Thinkfree, offer both online and offline versions. All are free to try and almost all are free to use. Unless you need the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feature set that Microsoft Office offers, there’s really no defensible reason to pay hundreds of dollars for a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation application bundle. There are simply too many good, name brand, free or nearly-free alternatives. Some are even made by Microsoft. Happy holidays.