A Free Alternative to Microsoft Office

If you use Microsoft Office in your front office and you want to avoid paying expensive licensing costs for the next round of upgrades, with steep learning curves, bugs, and general sluggishness, stop wringing your hands in defeat. There is a highly functional alternative called OpenOffice.org, and it’s free.

There are many attractive aspects to the OpenOffice.org office suite. The functionality it offers is very similar to Microsoft Office, and in some cases it even outperforms Microsoft. OpenOffice.org and all of its updates are free because it is open source software, which allows free sharing of software code and invites anyone to propose edits to improve the code. OpenOffice.org hardware requirements are also much lower than those for Microsoft Office. The open source philosophy behind OpenOffice.org always works in favor of the consumer because it is solely concerned with making a good product, while proprietary software may sometimes defer that goal in favor of increasing revenue. Unless you’re inextricably bound to some specific feature in Microsoft Office (e.g., PivotCharts, Microsoft Exchange), or 100 percent compatibility with Microsoft files is crucial, OpenOffice.org makes for an excellent replacement.


The OpenOffice.org suite consists of six applications: Writer, Calc, Impress, Base, Draw, and Math. Their respective user interfaces are similar to what you would find in Microsoft Office 2003.

Writer, the word processor, has a very similar user interface to Microsoft Word, making the transition to OpenOffice.org easy. It has nearly all of the features of Word, with a few convenient additions, such as built-in exporting of PDFs and easy HTML editing. (HTML is the computer language used to put text on Web sites.) Writer does not have a grammar-checker, though some, based on experience with Word, might consider this a blessing.

Calc, the spreadsheet application, lets you create and edit spreadsheets and graphs. A PC World review found Calc easier to use than Microsoft Excel. Calc boasts 80 percent of the same math functions as Excel and has many that Excel does not. Calc unfortunately lacks a pivot chart feature. 

Impress, the feature-rich presentation program, again has similar functionality and interface to Microsoft PowerPoint; it creates slides and transitions and allows for embedded graphics, tables, and video. Impress only comes with two presentation templates (PowerPoint has 20), but as in PowerPoint, you can search for thousands more online.

Base, OpenOffice.org’s database application, allows the creation and manipulation of databases as well as forms and reports. Base can be used as a front end for entering data into existing Microsoft programs, as well as other industry-standard databases, such as Open Database Connectivity and MySQL.

Draw is a graphics editing program, allowing for the creation of flowcharts and other diagrams. It also contains some desktop publishing features.

Math, OpenOffice.org’s tool for creating and editing mathematical formulae, has similar features to Microsoft Equation Editor.


There are two major drawbacks to implementing OpenOffice.org in your workplace: lack of an e-mail client/personal information manager and compatibility problems with Microsoft file types.

If you use Microsoft Outlook to schedule meetings with coworkers, sync with your PDA, or manage your productivity, OpenOffice.org is a hard sell, as it has no equivalent application. If you only use Outlook to compose e-mail, Mozilla Thunderbird meet your needs nicely. Mozilla also has Sunbird, a calendar application, but it has only been released in a test (beta) edition.

Technically speaking, converting OpenOffice.org’s file formats (called ODF) to their respective formats in Microsoft Office 2003 and earlier (.doc, .xls) is simple. However, if formatting gets complicated, problems can start to arise. For instance, if you create a document with a feature that is only supported in OpenOffice.org, it will not transfer to Microsoft Office and can sometimes cause catastrophic design changes. Additionally, to convert Office 2007 files to ODF, you need to use a third-party file converter. (They are easily obtainable.)

Tech Support

Many people express concern that they will not be able to get reliable tech support for OpenOffice.org. This concern is essentially unfounded, as support for OpenOffice.org is comparable to Microsoft’s support. OpenOffice.org’s Web site has an extensive library of documentation, tutorials, and user forums. The forums are especially helpful; if you’re having a problem with OpenOffice.org, chances are that someone else has had it before. Sun Microsystems also offers contract-based and incident-based commercial support.