- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2006

Open-source alternatives

rival Microsoft’s software

Just as Microsoft Corp. prepares to release an all-new version of Office, some computer users are learning to live without the ubiquitous desktop software — or at least trying to.

For Rob Blackwelder, trying alternatives to the Office programs — which include Word, spreadsheet program Excel, e-mail reader Outlook and presentation-maker PowerPoint — is about avoiding the world’s dominant software company.

“Their software is just buggy, and people are stuck with it,” said the Oakland, Calif., writer. “Any time I can find an alternative to Microsoft, I’ll use that alternative.”

For many others, it is all about economics. When you can buy a basic personal computer, with the Windows operating system installed, for $300, adding $150 for the cheapest version of Office, the Student and Teacher edition, is a 50 percent price increase. Pricing for the 2007 Office software, to be released at the end of this year, is expected to be comparable.

The most widely used alternative to Office is an open-source program called OpenOffice, which is sponsored by Sun Microsystems. OpenOffice tries to match all the major features of Microsoft’s program. There are a variety of Web-based programs that can replace all or parts of the Office programs, including ThinkFree Office Online, word processor Writely, spreadsheet maker NumSum, and e-mail program Thunderbird. All of this software is significantly less expensive than Microsoft Office: It’s absolutely free.

OpenOffice can read files created in Microsoft Office, and it can create new files that Office can open. So, ideally, you could take home spreadsheets created at work using Excel, and work on them on your home computer without having to buy Office.

In practice, OpenOffice lives up to its goal to match Microsoft’s product — if you’re not too picky. Simple text files and spreadsheets can be moved from one program to another without any obvious changes. The latest version, OpenOffice 2.0, released in September, looks a lot like Word on your computer screen, so it feels familiar.

Daryle Bayless, who works in the media department of a Navy ship, said he routinely works in OpenOffice on his laptop, then converts the files to Word. In a year of using OpenOffice, he has never encountered any problems.

“I find it to be more user-friendly than Office,” said Mr. Bayless, who lives in Suffolk, Va.

Others notice small, nagging differences between the expensive software package and the free one.

It is those little things — paired with a lack of consumer awareness — that keep OpenOffice from approaching Office’s popularity. Although 61 million people have downloaded or bought OpenOffice or a similar, paid product called StarOffice, 400 million own its Microsoft counterpart.

A file transferred from OpenOffice to Microsoft Office, or vice versa, might not always look exactly the same, especially if you create complex documents, said Michael Silver, an analyst with research firm Gartner.

“The more proficient you are with Microsoft Office, the more you’ll be annoyed,” Mr. Silver said.

For Mr. Blackwelder, the differences between the Macintosh versions of OpenOffice’s Writer program and Microsoft Word were enough to make him go back to using Word for writing movie reviews.

“I have some specific needs. I’ve gotten accustomed to a few things,” he said. Mr. Blackwelder likes to use unusual paragraph formatting that he couldn’t quite duplicate with OpenOffice or with other word processors he tried. He also found OpenOffice to be sluggish, and he thought the interface was not as streamlined as Microsoft’s.

“It feels like a free alternative,” Mr. Blackwelder concluded. “It’s an imitator, and it just doesn’t quite measure up.”

Another shortcoming: Open-Office and StarOffice don’t have an e-mail program. E-mail will be added to the next release in 2007, said Iyer Venkatesan, product manager for StarOffice at Sun.

OpenOffice’s other problem, its lack of visibility, could come to an end if Google makes good on a promise. In October, Google and Sun — Microsoft rivals both — got together and said they would “explore opportunities” to jointly promote Sun technologies, including OpenOffice. But Google has been mum on what exactly it might do for OpenOffice.

Web-based Office alternatives offer the advantage of allowing users to log in and access their files from any computer with a browser. That could be attractive for folks who are on the move a lot, but could prove annoying if your Internet service goes down and you need to access the programs.

Analysts say that for most home users, whatever comes pre-installed on your computer is good enough, whether that is Microsoft’s low-end productivity software, Microsoft Works, or OpenOffice, or Corel’s WordPerfect software or, of course, Office.

But for some, getting rid of Office has an intangible appeal that goes beyond convenience or cost.

“Philosophy is one reason,” said Russell Nelson, a director of the nonprofit Open Source Initiative, which promotes open-source software. “I believe that the world is made a better place when power is well-distributed. I don’t want any entity to have too much control over my life, so I would use OpenOffice even if it wasn’t perfect.”

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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