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IBM offers free alternative to MS Office

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 19, 2007
(Issue 2542, Satellite and HD Radio)

While Microsoft's Office suite continues to be the dominant office productivity suite, it is also pretty expensive, particularly for home use, with full-featured versions running $400, and even the home/student version priced at $150.

And although WordPerfect is a cost-effective alternative (with a basic-features home edition available for less than $100), some of us don't have even that much to pay. (WordPerfect will open and save to Microsoft Word-format documents, and can even display a toolbar identical to that in Word.)

A few years ago, Sun Microsystems bought the StarOffice suite, jumped into the OpenOffice open source office project and helped issue the suite (now in version 2.3). Able to open Word and WordPerfect formatted files, and able to save to Word, its own Star Office format (.sxw) or the open-source OpenDocument format (.odt), OpenOffice is as fully functional an all-in-one alternative to Word as is WordPerfect. (While you can open a WordPerfect file in OpenOffice, you can't save to WordPerfect format – a bit goofy, that.)

And it's free for the download from (Sun apparently uses OpenOffice as a sort of loss leader marketing promotion, as it is a spin-off of its for-sale StarOffice productivity suite.)

Following on the heels of the growing popularity of OpenOffice, IBM's Lotus subdivision is now in late beta testing of its own free office productivity suite, Symphony.

Part of the same lineage as the once-dominant but now largely forgotten Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, Symphony, like OpenOffice, offers a word processor, spreadsheet program and presentation program – free versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Like OpenOffice, Symphony can save to and open files in the OpenDocument format – which may be becoming the new ASCII as the universal document format of choice. (It is not particularly clear what IBM's income stream will be from Symphony – unless IBM will also have a for-sale version with additional features, as Sun does with StarOffice.)

While it won't open WordPerfect fomatted files (at least in beta), Symphony does open from and save to Word format, as well as OpenOffice (.sxw) and OpenDocument formats.

Neither OpenOffice nor Symphony is a small download – both are substantially larger than 100Mb. But on a broadband connection, it's not too long a download. And that $0 price tag sure makes the wait seem worthwhile!

How well do they work?

Putting them to the test, I'd say OpenOffice is a bit better at rendering Word documents, particularly complex documents like invoices with embedded spreadsheets and tables. Still, Symphony seems to have little problem with basic documents that just have your normal formatting, like bold, italic, different type faces, etc.

A real shortcoming of the beta version of Symphony is the lack of any support for HTML-formatted documents, not even an export function. You can export to PDF, which is useful, but in an age when more and more documents end up existing in both the real world and online, you have to wonder why IBM didn't include HTML support from the get-go.

OpenOffice, on the other hand, in addition to a workable (and free) replacement for Word, is a decent little HTML editor, letting you switch from layout mode to HTML code view so you can hand-tag your documents. It may not be as close to Dreamweaver as it is to Word, but you could very efficiently and effectively build and manage a small Web site using only OpenOffice and an image editor.

And, as with Symphony, you an also export a document as a PDF.

Both free office suites allow you to save to the universal standard plain text (ASCII) format, as well as to the nearly universal rich text format (.rtf), which is actually a proprietary format owned by Microsoft.

TV on the 'Net

In February of 2006, we told you about Slingbox, a hardware device that takes any TV signal (cable, satellite, DVD player, DVR) and redirects it over a network so you can watch your existing TV signal on your laptop.

A different approach to watching TV on your computer comes from Joost, which is a free-for-now video broadcasting service that is like a cable feed for your PC or Mac.

You have to download a client program for your computer, and have to have a broadband connection, but then you can watch a variety of programs, from "CSI" to "Larry King Live" to "Punk'd." There are more than 15,000 shows on now.

Not sure what the business model is, but advertising is probably a good guess. Didn't feel like giving my kids another excuse to stare at a screen, so I haven't tried it out. If anyone else has and wants to share their experience, drop me a line.