Microsoft Office sucks. Sure, I use it everyday, but that’s because I have to for work. It’s slow and bloated, and unbelievably expensive. And ever since they did away with the familiar menu-based system, I’ve had to hunt around to find my more commonly used tasks. Did I mention it’s expensive? It is. To download the basic MS Office 2007 from the Microsoft website costs $US399.95 – a huge expense even for large companies. What if there was a comparable, free alternative?
Of course, there is! OpenOffice.org is one of the most successful open-source projects around. Originally a Sun Microsystems product, the source code was made public in July 2000 and made open-source. Sun still sells StarOffice, which is essentially OpenOffice.org with some proprietary additional features. Despite the name being a URL, OpenOffice.org is not an online web-app, it is a local software suite that runs on nearly every platform. OpenOffice is a trademark for another company in some countries, so the software is called OpenOffice.org (or OOo or OO.o) to distinguish it – but in this article I’ll stick to OpenOffice.
The Standard version of Microsoft Office has four components: Excel, Word, Outlook and PowerPoint. OpenOffice on the other hand, comes with six: Writer (a word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentation software), Base (database program), Draw (graphics) and Math (equation editor). And OpenOffice can read and write MS Office files, although any document you create with it is saved by default as OpenDocument Format (an international standard file format). MS Office feels much more powerful and feature-rich, although in fairness I haven’t found many things OpenOffice doesn’t do that MS Office does. But the main advantage for using OpenOffice is not just the upfront cost saving, but the ongoing savings as well. Because the software is free, so are all updates to it – upgrading MS Office to Office Standard 2007 costs US239.95. And because OpenOffice is available on Mac, Windows, OS/2 and Linux, if you change platforms later on you don’t have to worry about migrating your data with it.
But the main feature that OpenOffice lacks, compared to MS Office, is online collaboration. Microsoft Live is an online workspace that allows you to share your documents with co-workers anywhere in the world. You sign up in your browser, and you can see all your documents that you’ve stored online. Clicking “Edit” marks them as “checked out” and opens the file on your computer in MS Office. Online collaboration is becoming more and more essential for online companies, but it’s also just as useful within the same building. And of course, it makes working from home much easier when you don’t have to take your files home on a flash drive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the king of online office collaboration comes from Google. Many of you may have used Google Docs, a completely online browser-based office suite that can import/export MS Office files. One of it’s best features, in my opinion, is it’s ability to have a document edited by two or more people at the same time. Recently when Seamus was organising his buck’s party, he put the list of people to invite in a shared Google Docs spreadsheet that the groomsmen all had access to. As we contacted each person, we would then update the spreadsheet to say whether they were coming or not, and add any notes. Often Seamus or I would be updating it at the same time, and we could see the changes each other was making (and even chat with each other about it, without leaving the window).
Google Docs offers spreadsheets, word processing documents, presentations and online forms (such as feedback forms and surveys) and integrates with your existing Gmail account. However, business users should look into the more functional Google Apps suite, which allows you to run Gmail and Google Docs from your own website. Your company email, then, could be Gmail but branded for your company. All your employees would have an account for your Google Apps which is separate from their personal Google accounts, and they’d store all their work related documents on your website (or on Google, but accessed through your site). It’s completely secure, and different folders can be restricted for certain users etc. There are Non Profit, Educational and Government versions available, but businesses are most likely to use the Standard edition (free, but advertisement-funded) or Premier (US$50 per user per year). Standard version includes Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs and Sites – which lets you build your own company website as well as internal sites for within your company. The Premier version has all that as well as 25Gb email storage per user, Google Video, additional security options and round-the-clock support.
And the best thing about Google Apps, the thing that sets it light-years ahead of Microsoft Live? The recently announced Google Apps Marketplace, which allows you to integrate thousands of free or purchased third party online apps. Everything from Customer Relations Management (like the very popular Zoho CRM) to marketing (such as MailChimp, which streamlines newsletter and mailing list management), project management (like ManyMoon) to accounting and payroll (like Expensify or Intuit Online Payroll). Google Apps now makes it possible to take your company completely into the cloud, managing your whole business online. It’s easy to see where Google Europe chief John Herlihy was talking about when he said earlier this month “In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant”.The truth is, Google Apps offers so much for small and large businesses that I’m still learning my way around it all. Fortunately, Mashable have just posted this excellent introductory guide that explains what it’s all about.