News Column

Small Businesses Tips: Software Alternatives Can Trim Costs

Dec. 2, 2008

Jackson West, for

free software, productivity suite, small business, business solutions

Microsoft's Office suite of software applications has become almost as common as staplers and filing cabinets. But at $399.95 for a single license for Office Standard 2007 Full, you could spend nearly $4,000 getting it installed on just ten machines.

OpenOffice, a project from Sun Microsystems, offers almost all of the same core functionality of Office, including spreadsheets, word processing and presentation software. The program is a free download that will work on any computer running the Windows, Macintosh or Linux operating systems -- so even if you have a variety of systems at your business, employees can use the same familiar software on any machine.

Most importantly, OpenOffice will open, edit and save documents in the same formats as Excel, Word and PowerPoint. So if a customer, client or vendor provides a spreadsheet in Excel's .XLS format, you'll still be able receive and return it as a file that their systems will be able to understand.

OpenOffice also has its own format, the Open Document Standard, which is specially designed to allow software from any provider, even competitors, access. If you've ever been stuck with old files from a piece of software that's no longer supported, and which you can no longer open, this format promises to be "future proof." It could well save you headaches down the road.

Microsoft will soon be releasing a version of Office that will run in an ordinary Web browser, called Office Web Applications. But Google has offered something similar for over a year, and like OpenOffice, it's free. Just sign up for Google Docs, and you can create new spreadsheets, documents and presentations or upload those created by Office or OpenOffice, and export or download them in formats that are also supported by both.

While not as full-featured as Office or OpenOffice, Google Docs offers much more flexibility. You can share documents with multiple people and even allow them to make changes so multiple people can collaborate. If you're out of town or on vacation, you can review and edit files saved online from any machine with an Internet connection and a web browser.

By combining OpenOffice and Google Docs, you'll be able to do almost anything you currently use Microsoft Office for and more, and it won't cost you anything to purchase or subscribe. Of course, you'll have to consider how much time you'll have to invest in retraining staff familiar with Microsoft Office, if necessary. And I'd recommend having at least one full version of Office available just in case you encounter a document or feature that's not supported by these alternatives.

But if you're considering sending Microsoft hundreds or thousands of dollars to purchase multiple copies of Office, you should definitely check out the competition. At the price -- free -- what have you got to lose?

Jackson West is a writer and web geek living in San Francisco, California and he can be found online at

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Source: (c) 2008. All rights reserved.

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