Alternatives to Big-Name Tech Tools

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 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

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