Five (Free) Alternatives to Microsoft Word

Thursday Jan 10th 2008 by James Maguire
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Microsoft Word has a vise grip on business users, yet several rapidly maturing alternatives are vying for market share.

I know the idea makes you nervous. I understand that. You would never – never – want to end your relationship with Microsoft Word. With good reason. You’ve been joined at the hip with Word for years. You’ve written hundreds (thousands?) of documents with it. You’ve spent more time with Word than you’ve spent with some of your loved ones.

What’s more, all your colleagues use it. And all of their colleagues use it. So the very idea of finding an alternative to Word is like…separating from the mothership. You’re simply not interested. At all.

But wait a second: what if the alternative were absolutely, totally, free?

What if you could download it for nothing and check it out, just to see how you like it? And the next time a pricey upgrade came along for Word (or actually Office, the suite that bundles Word) you’d have an alternate. Remember, looking at an alternative doesn’t mean leaving your Word security blanket, it’s just something to consider.

If you’re feeling brave, here are five free alternatives to the almighty Microsoft Word:

IBM Lotus Symphony

Like Microsoft Office, IBM’s office productivity suite includes a full palette of tools: word processing, spreadsheets, and a program to create those presentations your boss asks you to do. Unlike Word, Symphony supports the Open Document Format (ODF), which means (among other things) that your documents will be fully compatible with any other ODF application – being locked into a single vendor is a thing of the past. Topping off that advantage: Symphony allows you to import, edit and save your work in Microsoft Office formats. So yes, you can still communicate with your fellow cubicle inhabitants. (An unsupported exception: the OOXML format used by Office 2007.)

At this point, the beta suite is Windows and Linux only, with no Apple version. Given that Apple’s market share is zooming over 8 percent, it’s no surprise that IBM says that Apple support is on the way.

OpenOffice

Known by its users as “OO,” this office suite is the king of the hill in terms of being a Word alternative. It’s widely used, is compatible with all the OSes (Windows, Linux, Apple, Sun) and it supports ODF. Its toolbox of spreadsheet, word processing, presentation and database apps is well respected. It can interact with Microsoft Office files (more or less). When you want to jazz up your business presentation, dip into OpenOffice’s free reservoir of clip art graphics (there’s nothing like a smiley face to add gravitas to your monthly reports).

Business users with many employees might want to opt for the paid version, StarOffice 8 (retailing for around $80) because it comes with advanced administration options and – this one’s important – options to aid Microsoft Office migration. Also important, StarOffice includes phone support. (Getting help for the free version requires you to troll user forums, relying on the kindness of strangers.)

ThinkFree Office 3

Available as an online suite, ThinkFree is fully ready for that future date when everything we do (including the software we use) is stored remotely over the Internet; however, ThinkFree is also available as an offline program. The ThinkFree Online version, which offers 1GB storage, includes a spreadsheet, word processor and presentation program. Its files are compatible with Microsoft Word’s. (In fact its interface looks remarkably Microsoft-like.)

Because ThinkFree is online, it’s platform independent; Windows, Apple and Linux users are welcome. Some users have complained that the online version (still in beta) opens only one file at a time, and can be slow. On the plus side, ThinkFree has free 24/7 email support. It also has a nifty iPod edition that enables you to create slide shows for your Apple handheld.

Google Docs and Spreadsheets

Some users might worry about a free office suite offered by a start up. Will it still be around once I get comfortable with it? With Google, of course, that’s not a worry – the search giant’s gonna be around for the foreseeable future. That said, for all Google’s wealth, this beta offering has yet to earn a reputation as a Wonder App.

Google Docs’s combination of a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool is seen as a straight forward, if essentially bare bones, competitor with Word. Users access the software over the Internet, which facilitates collaboration, and also makes it OS platform independent. However, Google Docs doesn’t have an offline counterpart, so if you’re away from the Net, you’re sunk (though rumor has it that an offline version will debut in 2008). More worrisome, some observers have raised questions about Google Docs’s terms of service, which includes this shocking clause:

“By submitting, posting or displaying the Content you give Google a worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit…”

In other words, Google can take any of your private documents and post it on the Internet. Yikes! Only an all-powerful tech giant would dare use legal language like that. A start-up would get laughed out of business by attempting to retain the right to publish private content. Why does Google even want this right?

Zoho Office Suite

A free online office suite, Zoho isn’t content to merely offer office productivity tools. Sure, it has a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software, yet it also offers Web conferencing, a database, a project management app, a Wiki…the list goes on (and on). There’s even something called iZoho, which allows you to view docs in your iPhone. The company claims it grew from 150,000 users to close to 600,000 in 2007. Zoho is building some buzz: it was one of PC Magazine’s “100 Best Products for 2007.”

One highly useful feature: Zoho has a plug-in for Microsoft Word that allows you to save your Word files to the Zoho servers with a single click. Unlike some free online Word competitors, Zoho allows you to open several documents in one window. The company offers free email tech support.

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