What you got there, huh? New computer? New, but not particularly expensive, barebones computer? Gonna write some stuff, maybe make a spreadsheet?
Not so fast. In what comes as a shock to many, Windows doesn’t come with Microsoft Office all the time. That costs extra. But there are always possibilities.
• OpenOffice.org: This open-source suite, now on version 3.2.1, is more than 10 years old with roots that go back to the 1980s with a product called StarOffice. It includes word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation and drawing programs for Windows, Mac OS and Linux. Although by default it saves your work in Open Document Format (ODF), it also supports opening and saving in current and older Microsoft Office formats, as well as PDF, HTML and some other obscure office suite formats.
Since it’s the dominant open-source office suite, there are tons of independent “fork” projects that add different functions or repackage OpenOffice.org. IBM strips the database program for its Lotus Symphony release, while OxygenOffice goes the opposite route and includes extra fonts, templates, photos and clip art. OOo4Kids aims to indoctrinate our youth into cubicle culture with a suite for 7- to 12-year-olds. It has a simplified interface, more colors and different fonts that I guess children will like. There’s even a version on PortableApps.com that installs to a USB drive, so you can use OpenOffice.org on any PC you might encounter.
• SoftMaker Office: There are a couple catches with this one. First, it’s only the 2006 release that’s free, because they’re counting on your being so impressed that you pay $80 for the 2010 release. Sure, that’s possible, but how impressive is a suite with only two programs? That’s right, you get word processing and spreadsheets and that’s it.
In fact, for most alternative office suites, you now have to go online to use them.
• Google Docs: You’ve heard of them, right? Word processing, spreadsheet, drawing and presentations all stored in your Google account. This suite makes it easy to share documents with other people, either by publishing them directly to the web or by allowing other users access to edit them simultaneously with you. Obviously this capability should be used sparingly — like when you and your classmates are putting together a presentation while chatting on your headsets or something. Whatever kids do these days.
• Zoho Docs: Zoho has so many features that are similar to Google that it’s easy to get confused. There are two main differences: not everything at Zoho is free, and Zoho appears to not be bent on world domination. Their Docs service is free if you’re happy with 1GB of storage space, and it includes the standard word processing, spreadsheet and presentation editors. You can also use their mail, conference, calendar and other apps at no cost (with some upgrades at a monthly fee). You can even sign in with your Google account.
• ThinkFree: Another browser-based service with the same three office programs that lets you use your Google account to sign in. They’re pushing more corporate software, like their Conversion Server and ThinkFree Server Enterprise (“an on-premise web productivity solution”!). They also offer mobile software for Android, Windows Mobile and iPhone.
• Microsoft Office Web Apps: A free version of Microsoft Office? Gadzooks! How will they make money? Maybe by crippling the free online version? Yes, but also by only allowing personal use for free — use it for business, no matter how small, and you’re supposed to pay. Word, Excel and Powerpoint editing is all there, but some advanced features of the desktop software aren’t. There’s also a web version of OneNote, Microsoft’s freeform note-taking/brainstorming software. Neat.