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Microsoft Office Alternatives: Productivity Software Showdown

Microsoft Office may be the dominant office suite on the market, but that doesn't mean there aren't other choices. Multiple alternative suites--both free and otherwise--are available to meet the productivity needs of individuals and businesses, and many have their own cohorts of die-hard fans.

We've taken a close look at five of the most compelling alternative suites for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Three of them are free; those that aren't cost a whole lot less than the $280 price of Microsoft Office 2010 Home and Business--not to mention the Professional edition, which costs $500.

Which competing suite is best for your business? That depends to a great extent on what you need and don't need (collaboration capabilities, for example). Read on, and you just may find a winning option. (Clicking on each main heading below--the name of the suite--will take you to a site it is available.)

IBM Lotus Symphony

Price: Free

Platform: Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X

License: Proprietary

Three applications make up IBM Lotus Symphony, which was originally launched in 2007: Lotus Symphony Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations. A wide variety of plug-ins are also available.

Version 3 of Lotus Symphony was released in October 2010. Based on OpenOffice.org code, the software is free. For a fee, however, IBM also offers a QuickStart solution to help companies evaluate the return on investment and feasibility of using the software enterprisewide, including training and best practices.

Also available separately for a fee is IBM's LotusLive service for cloud-based solutions, collaboration, mobile capabilities, and more.

Three basic modules make up IBM Lotus Symphony, which also includes its own Web browser. (Click image for full view.)
Hands-on: Though Lotus Symphony is based on OpenOffice, its user interface has a very different feel. One of the biggest differences that jumped out during testing is that you can have different types of files open in the same window, just in different tabs. For example, with most office suites you'd have to toggle between a spreadsheet window and a presentation window if you're working on both at the same time, but Symphony lets you have them side by side, which is nice.

Version 3 includes a good selection of clip art, and we had no trouble opening document, spreadsheet, and presentation files from both OpenOffice and Microsoft Office. Similarly, a word processing file we created in Symphony--complete with bullets and hyperlinks--opened just fine in Office. Symphony's relatively limited set of tools all felt solid, and very similar to those in Office and other competitors. A new chart wizard is especially helpful.

One thing that's a little quirky is that Symphony includes its own browser. So, when you click on a link from within a document or presentation, say, it launches into the Web itself, without going outside the application to your default browser. That's not a bad thing, per se, but it does feel unnecessary.

Symphony is notable for its strong support for standards, including Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2 as well as those of Microsoft Office. Digital signatures are supported, as are Visual Basic macros. The software supports more than 20 languages.

In IBM Lotus Symphony, document, spreadsheet, and presentation files can exist side-by-side via different tabs within the same window. (Click image for full view.)
Standards supported:

  • Microsoft Office 97 - 2003
  • Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2
  • PDF (Export)
  • Office Open XML (Import)

Unique Features:

  • Includes a Web browser
  • You can open multiple types of files in different tabs within the same window
  • Strong standards support for interoperability

Missing Pieces:

  • Mobile support
  • Cloud support (reportedly in the works)
  • Collaboration software
  • E-mail, drawing, or desktop publishing modules

IBM Lotus Symphony Is Best For:

IBM Lotus Symphony is a strong contender for basic desktop use in word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, but the software's relatively limited scope makes it less attractive for users who need a wider range of functionality. And while IBM is reportedly planning a paid, hosted version of Symphony, the current lack of mobile, cloud, and collaborative support makes it less useful for teams that need to collaborate or access files from anywhere.

Next page: An open-source option

LibreOffice

Price: Free

Platform: Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux

License: LGPL public license

Created as a result of the recent split between Oracle and the OpenOffice.org community, LibreOffice is a brand-new spin on OpenOffice.org that was just released by the Document Foundation.

The software includes Writer, its word processor; Calc, a spreadsheet module; Impress, for presentations; Draw, for sketching and diagrams; Base, a database front end; and Math, a simple equation editor.

Available in more than 30 languages, LibreOffice 3.3 offers strong support for standards including Microsoft Office, Microsoft Office Open XML, Open Document Format, and PDF. A portable version of the software was recently launched for USB, removable, and cloud drives, enabling users to take it wherever they go.

As open-source software, LibreOffice enjoys the support of a large worldwide community, including a raft of developers who can be tapped for custom solutions.

Hands-on:

Given that it's the first stable version of the OpenOffice.org fork, it shouldn't be too surprising that LibreOffice 3.3 feels a great deal like the software it's based on. Much as with OpenOffice, the interface is familiar for those used to Microsoft Office, but also easy to personalize.

The strong similarity of LibreOffice 3.3 to OpenOffice.org is no great surprise given that it’s the first stable release of the Document Foundation’s new spin-off. (Click image for full view.)
Document, spreadsheet, and presentation files created in both Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org posed no problem for LibreOffice, nor did a document created in LibreOffice encounter problems in Microsoft Word.

Although the Document Foundation apparently has big plans for future versions of LibreOffice, it's readily apparent that this version is focused primarily on consistency, compatibility, and the quality of the code, just as the foundation said it would be. LibreOffice feels like a good, all-purpose office suite--similar in nearly every respect to OpenOffice--and its portable version comes as a bonus for users on the go.

Standards Supported:

  • Open Document Format
  • Microsoft Office
  • Office Open XML
  • PDF (Import and Export)

Unique Features:

  • Available in more than 30 languages
  • Portable version designed for USB, removable, and cloud drives
  • Open source with LGPL license for flexibility and customization capabilities

Missing Pieces:

  • Cloud support
  • Mobile apps
  • Collaboration features

LibreOffice Is Best For:

Given the many disagreements between Oracle and the open-source community in recent months, LibreOffice is clearly a better bet than OpenOffice.org for any organization that values open-source software, whether for philosophical or practical reasons. It's also a fuller-fledged option for desktop use than Lotus Symphony is, and the addition of a portable version is a help for employees on the go. True road warriors, however, may prefer to go with a suite that offers more cloud, mobile, and collaboration capabilities.

Next page: Online software from a search giant

Google Docs

Price: Free, or $50 per user per year as part of Google Apps for businesses.

Platform: Online

License: Proprietary

Google Docs is perhaps the best-known name in cloud-based office software. The free service lets users import existing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, or create new ones from scratch. From there, they can be accessed, edited, and shared from anywhere using just a Web browser.

Multiple people can share documents and make changes at the same time, making this a good platform for group collaboration. Mobile options, meanwhile, allow users to edit Google documents and spreadsheets in English on devices running Android Froyo or later and iOS 3.0 and up.

For businesses, Google Docs is part of the paid Google Apps service, which also includes Gmail, Google Calendar, and more. Add-ons are available through Google Labs as well as the Google Apps Marketplace.

Hands-on:

Most of us are familiar with Google Docs for one reason or another, and the service has become almost synonymous with group collaboration and sharing. There's no doubt its cloud-based capabilities are a boon for groups and those who need to access files while on the road.

Though improvements to the service's Documents List rolled out in January, finding and opening files that were created elsewhere feels like a bit of a hassle in Google Docs, which requires that files be uploaded and converted into its format. (By contrast, Zoho, discussed on the next page, makes the process feel much easier.)

Google Docs features a more rudimentary interface than many competing contenders. (Click image for full view.)
Many of the details of file manipulation are also more difficult than they should be in Google Docs. Formatting word processing documents, for example, is far behind what it is in other contenders, and the user interface generally feels like a minimalist throwback to bygone days.

Performance lags are also a regular occurrence on the service, and you'll have to wait for offline capabilities, which are slated for the future. (For now, the Busydocs program can take work offline.)

Standards Supported:

  • Open Document Format
  • Microsoft Office
  • Office Open XML
  • PDF (Import and Export)

Unique Features:

  • Excellent for collaboration and sharing
  • Widely used
  • Integrates with other Google tools
  • Mobile support

Missing Pieces:

  • Many of the interface niceties and finer formatting capabilities of desktop office software
  • Offline capabilities (reportedly coming later this year)

Google Docs Is Best For:

Road warriors and groups that need to share files from multiple locations can, and do, make great use of Google Docs. Those who need software capable of supplying the finishing touches to lengthy or numerous documents, however, may want to look elsewhere, as may those for whom an attractive and user-friendly interface is important.

Next page: A Web-based suite with many mobile options

Zoho

Price: Free for individuals; business pricing ranges from free for up to 1GB of storage and one workspace to $5 per user per month for 20 workspaces.

Platform: Online

License: Proprietary

Like Google Docs, Zoho is a cloud-based office suite that's delivered via the user's Web browser. Zoho offers more than 20 different applications for collaboration, business, and productivity purposes. In the latter category are the word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, note-taking and organizer tools that compete most directly with Microsoft Office. All are available in multiple languages.

Zoho Docs’ handy user dashboard provides an overview of current files and storage details. (Click image for full view.)
Zoho Docs is an online document management system that incorporates Zoho's word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tools, among others, allowing users to store all files securely in a centralized location and then share or access them from anywhere. Individual use is free, but businesses pay a monthly fee. (Zoho requests that you e-mail them for a custom quote.)

Zoho's word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tools support multiple office formats including Microsoft Office, Office Open XML, and Open Document Format. A particularly notable feature of the service, however, is that it offers a plug-in that lets you create, edit, and save your documents and spreadsheets directly to Zoho from within Microsoft Word or Excel.

Zoho also supports an offline mode in its word processor so that users can work in a browser even when not connected to the Internet, and then sync up later when they're back online. Mobile access is available via iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Nokia (S60 platform) devices.

Another interesting feature of Zoho is that it has actually integrated its online project management tool and other features with Google's Apps. There's also a version designed for Microsoft SharePoint.

Hands-on:

Zoho’s spreadsheet module mimics the interface and capabilities of desktop heavyweights. (Click image for full view.)
Compared with Google Docs, Zoho's interface is a pleasure to behold. Instead of being rudimentary, the design is elegant and intuitive, and far more closely than Google Docs, it resembles what most of us are used to from desktop applications.

A customizable dashboard lets you manage your entire workflow, and importing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents posed no problem. Even better, basic tasks like document editing, which can be a bit of a nightmare in Google Docs, have a functionality that is leaps and bounds ahead in Zoho. Documents we created there also worked in Microsoft Office without any issues.

Sharing and collaboration tasks also were easy, and for road warriors with spotty Internet access, we also really liked the fact that you can both view and edit your latest 25 documents offline, with automatic syncing with the online version once you're back online.

Occasional lags did crop up while using Zoho, but all in all it gives the impression of having most of today's bases covered. It stands out as a well-developed and very nicely designed offering.

Standards Supported:

  • Microsoft Office
  • Open Document Format
  • Office Open XML
  • PDF (Export)

Zoho’s presentation module includes a wide variety of attractive backgrounds. (Click image for full view.)
Unique Features:

  • Offline mode for your last 25 documents
  • Plug-in lets you create, edit, and save your documents and spreadsheets directly to Zoho from within Microsoft Word or Excel
  • Version for Microsoft SharePoint
  • Integration with Google Apps
  • Collaboration & mobile features
  • Nice user interface

Missing Pieces:

Zoho was by far our favorite of the online offerings we looked at. The only glitches we saw were slight lags on executing some commands. All in all, it doesn't seem to leave much to be desired.

Zoho Is Best For:

The package is beautifully suited to business users who need to collaborate or access documents while on the road. At the same time, it even integrates with Microsoft tools and Google Apps, and the offline capabilities could be very helpful. Users who never travel or collaborate would probably be fine with a desktop package, but anyone else would do well to consider Zoho.

Next page: Desktop productivity with robust tools and a low price

SoftMaker Office

Price: $80 includes three licenses for home and business use.

Platform: Windows, Linux, Windows Mobile, and Windows CE

License: Proprietary

With a history extending back to 1989, SoftMaker Office is a Microsoft-compatible suite with versions for Windows, Linux, Windows Mobile, and Windows CE. SoftMaker Office 2010 is the latest version, and it includes modules for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations as well as a Visual Basic for Applications-like (VBA) scripting language and environment that lets you automate recurring tasks.

Support for Microsoft formats as well as Open Document Format and PDF are included in the software, which is free to try. The full version's selling price is still much lower than that of Microsoft Office and includes three licenses for home and business use. Seamless support for the DOCX and XLSX file formats from Microsoft Office 2010 and 2007 is also included.

Hands-on:

SoftMaker Office's interface mimics that of Microsoft Office more closely than that of any other alternative we reviewed, and each module offers a power-packed array of features.

The TextMaker word processor, for example, incorporates desktop publishing features above and beyond the scope of what's found in many other word processors, including master pages, flexible frames, object mode, contour wrap, and kerning. Spell-checking is available in 20 languages, and a built-in address database can help to build letters and mail merges easily. There's also an envelope creator. As with LibreOffice's portable version, you can install SoftMaker to a USB flash drive.

Graphics capabilities are one of SoftMaker Office 2010‘s strong suits, including mirror effects, soft shadows, transparencies, and image manipulation. (Click image for full view.)
We imported Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files with no problems, though one striking difference between SoftMaker and Lotus Symphony, for example, is the way each module is kept separate from the others, requiring a bunch of toggling if you're working on more than one at once. Files we created in SoftMaker, meanwhile, encountered no trouble moving into Microsoft Office.

Graphics features stood out as particularly excellent, with capabilities such as mirror effects, soft shadows, transparencies, and image manipulation. All in all, SoftMaker stood out as the contender that is most similar to, and most compatible with, Microsoft Office.

Standards Supported:

  • Microsoft Office
  • Open Document Format
  • Office Open XML
  • PDF (Export)

Unique Features:

  • Excellent Microsoft Office compatibility
  • Familiar, Microsoft-like interface
  • Excellent graphics support
  • Can be installed on a USB stick

Missing Pieces:

  • Cloud and collaboration capabilities
  • Mobile versions focus only on Windows Mobile and Windows CE

Softmaker Office Is Best For:

For users who don't need cloud storage or central collaboration capabilities (to serve a group with geographically dispersed members), SoftMaker is an excellent choice, particularly if Microsoft Office compatibility is critical. Its limited mobile support could be an issue for some, but on the whole, SoftMaker Office was our favorite desktop choice.

The Bottom Line

While all five of the Microsoft Office alternatives we looked at had particular strengths to recommend them, we preferred Zoho most on the online side and SoftMaker Office 2010 on the desktop.

Zoho's interface and basic features outperformed those of Google Docs in numerous ways, and a raft of additional capabilities were well-conceived icing on the proverbial cake. Those for whom cloud capabilities are less important, however, won't go wrong with SoftMaker, a powerful and compatible desktop offering whose capabilities really outshone the more limited features of IBM Lotus Symphony and LibreOffice. Its price isn't quite free, but it's still just a fraction of what you would pay Microsoft.

Of course, it should be kept in mind that several of these desktop packages--including SoftMaker--are decades old, whereas LibreOffice is in its first independent version. LibreOffice also has the advantage of being open source.

In any case, all the offerings we looked at are free to take for a test drive. If you're in the market for a new office suite, it will be worth your while to do just that.

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