navigation: e home : Trends : article

Office alternatives

Sunís alternative to Microsoft Office comes in two flavors. Version 5.2, which is more confusing to learn than Office, is free and available now. An easier-to-use, inexpensive version 6.0 goes on sale in May.

The look-and-feel of this $50 program closely resembles Microsoft Office, and it includes almost all of the same basic tools. It also adds a feature that makes it easy to store documents on the Internet

The standard for workplace productivity, this software is used by more than 90 percent of American businesses, but at $470 for a new version, itís priced beyond what most home users want to pay.

This completely free software suite doesnít include all of Officeís features, but itís word processor and spreadsheet boast excellent compatibility with documents created in Office. A $30 upgrade adds some missing features.

Gannett News Service

If you use a computer at work, there’s a pretty good chance you use a suite of software from Microsoft called Office. It lets you do a lot of common office tasks, including writing letters and memos, crunching financial or inventory numbers, creating business presentations, building Web pages and even sending e-mail.

Office, which is available in several versions for Windows and Macintosh computers, helps you accomplish all of these tasks by providing a number of tools, including a word processor, spreadsheet, a presentation program and a personal information manager in its most basic version. Enhanced versions add tools for managing databases and projects and designing Web sites.

Over time, Office has evolved to include easy-to-use “wizards” that guide users through often-frustrating tasks such as printing envelopes using names from a database. Indeed, these built-in tutorials, sophisticated automation tools called macros and powerful features for customizing the look of Office documents have made this suite almost ubiquitous at most companies. In fact, NPD Techworld, a research firm that tracks technology, says that Office accounts for more than 90 percent of the market for office productivity software used on computers today.

Because Office is so well regarded in the business world, it’s not surprising that more and more people want to use it at home, too — especially if they bring work home from the office on evenings and weekends or if they run home-based businesses.

Schools also have contributed to the growing interest in using Office at home. Many high schools and colleges have standardized on Office thanks to the steep discounts Microsoft offers educational institutions. And that means more students want to use Office on their home computers to complete term papers, science projects and other assignments.

But Office is an expensive program. The latest version, Office XP, costs a whopping $470, which might be a bit much for people who work at home or finish schoolwork there only occasionally.

Luckily, you don’t have to drop a lot of dough to take advantage of many of Office’s capabilities. That’s because several companies sell inexpensive alternatives to Office that share many of the popular suite’s best features. Here’s a look at three:

602Pro PC Suite 2001

602Pro PC Suite 2001 ( for Windows looks and feels remarkably similar to Microsoft Office, but its base version is priced at a mere $0.00. That’s right, it’s free for download over the Web. 602Pro PC Suite doesn’t include all of Office’s features, but it does supply a word processor and a spreadsheet that opens Office files with a high degree of compatibility.

Some features intentionally have been left out of 602Pro so that users will upgrade to a more robust version called 602Pro PC Suite Plus, which offers more features, such as e-mail and a thesaurus. It’s also bargain-priced at just $30. Software602 even has a $199 version of its Plus suite that can be installed on an unlimited number of computers at a small or medium-sized business, for example.

Software602 says about 50,000 people download the software every week and more than 1.5 million have registered their copies, so 602Pro appears to have carved a comfortable niche for itself.


StarOffice 6.0 ( from Sun Microsystems also includes the common productivity applications, and the latest version, which has been available on the Web in a free preview version, features a less confusing, more streamlined user interface.

The final 6.0 version, which should be available by May, will not be offered free of charge as was the case with its previous iteration, version 5.2, but it will come in at a “compelling price” in the “less than $100” range, according to Iyer Venkatesan, Sun’s product manager for StarOffice.

StarOffice has found its supporters in the small business community as well as similarly cash-strapped sectors such as education and localized government, Venkatesan said.

More than 27 million copies of StarOffice have been distributed worldwide through retail, e-tail and catalog distribution and other channels, making it a viable, “lite” alternative to Microsoft Office.

“With Microsoft’s new licensing and activations schemes, we’ve found that even (the) enterprise (sector) is looking at us,” Venkatesan said. But he’s quick to add that this doesn’t mean that StarOffice will usurp Microsoft Office. “We’re looking at more of a coexistent strategy (with Microsoft), because there’ll always be those power users that need Office.”

ThinkFree Office 2.0

Anticipating a reinvention of e-commerce, telecommuting and online collaboration, some 300,000 people are using ThinkFree Office 2.0 from ThinkFree Corp. ( It’s a compact suite that takes up only 15 megabytes of hard disk space (Office consumes as much as 200 megabytes). Think Free was introduced as a free product, but last year ThinkFree Corp. began charging $50 for it, and then charges $30 per year to keep the software’s license active.

ThinkFree is based on Sun Microsystems’ Java 2 programming environment so it will work on PCs that use the Windows, Macintosh or Linux operating systems. The suite is strongly tied to the Web, and users can store and retrieve their files from any Web-connected computer using their Cyberdrive, an online storage area. This particular feature has made ThinkFree Office the preferred suite for many itinerant business people.

“I have a Microsoft Office license, and I use (ThinkFree Office) as a companion,” said Wallace Glausi, an attorney at White & Lee LLP, a small law firm in Portland, Ore., specializing in technology.

Wallace travels extensively and finds that lugging around a laptop is no longer necessary.

“I post most of my documents to my Cyberdrive,” he explained. “I can just travel with my wallet and my PDA and show up at a client’s office and call up my documents from there.”

He adds that ThinkFree’s speed, efficiency and security makes the suite ideally suited to his needs, regardless of minor incompatibility issues. “Most of what I do are just standard Word documents and standard Excel documents, I don’t put in a lot of exotic formatting.”

At least one other PC user says his small business has found a lot to like about inexpensive Office alternatives.

“We wanted something nice, streamlined and efficient,” said Kevin Brunner, technical director at Digital Juice LLC, a Florida-based graphics and animation company. With the majority of the company’s systems loaded with high-end imaging and animation software, Brunner said that 602Pro PC Suite suits the company’s less-demanding administrative needs.

“We manage our projects just using simple spreadsheets and tables, so we don’t need all the fancy functions (Microsoft) Excel uses,” he said, referring to Microsoft’s productivity bundle(s) as “bloatware.”

But while some users might be satisfied with Office alternatives, potential customers should be aware that they have some limitations, according to Steve Koenig, senior software analyst with NPD-Techworld.

He said that while the Office alternatives are all compatible with the file formats used by Office, none can boast 100 percent compatibility. That’s because the Office pretenders often dump certain document formatting, for example, and misconstrue or omit marcos because the high-end functions of Microsoft programs remain proprietary and cannot be legally emulated. And Koenig also warns that said “bloatware” is still the de facto standard.

“Employers in corporate America expect you to have certain skills, and specifically in the Microsoft versions of productivity software,” he said. “If you tell a prospective employer that you’re fluent in StarOffice, for example, that employer will probably go, ‘what’s a star office?’