If you are a "power user" of Microsoft Office there will be little of interest here. If you are in the majority, however, using only a fraction of it but paying for all of it, you might be interested in some of the more recent challengers. OpenOffice, WordPerfect Office 12, Ability Office, Logotron's School Office and Sun's StarOffice, have all changed recently.
The quality of these suites improves each time. And for some organisations continued purchase of MS Office is not as automatic as it once was. The Scottish Executive has indicated as much by making it easier for Scottish schools to bring in Sun's StarOffice.
Ability Office Professional has gone to great lengths to look like MS Office - you can even change the screen to look like your preferred edition of Office. The suite incorporates upgraded versions of the four original modules: Ability Write, Ability Spreadsheet, Ability Database and Ability Photopaint, and three completely new modules: Ability Presentation, Ability PhotoAlbum and Ability Mail.
The plus points of the suite are: fully installed it only occupies 53Mb of hard disk space; the separate parts are integrated; there is a PDF creator, the database is the best in the low-priced suites and the photo editor is impressive. Free online support is also offered.
Logotron's School Office has a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program and a presenter. Not well advertised is the fact that it has a perfectly acceptable web page creator. The suite is based on source code from openoffice.org. Logotron has two programmers who have been working on this code for three years and improving it for schools. Documentation is also provided, as are support and features such as clipart. Like OpenOffice, there is no database and that is a drawback. All in all, School Office is a very good program, not easily distinguishable from the Microsoft version, especially the word processor, the spreadsheet and the presenter. The drawing program is different; there is nothing comparable to it in Microsoft Office. In fact, this is a high-quality drawing package that covers an area that is not touched by the Microsoft offering.
The great virtue of having this version of OpenOffice is that there is a manual or quick-start guide that is written with teachers in mind. The whole suite has been versioned by Logotron with a school in mind.
WordPerfect was once more popular than Word. WordPerfect Office 12 knows its place. "Microsoft Office Compatible" proclaims the box. The new version of WP realises that compatibility with MS Office is an issue and, like Ability Office Professional, you can configure it so that transferring from Office is painless. The facility to publish PDF files is included.
QuattroPro, the spreadsheet, is very stable and only a few macros do not move easily into Excel. The most expensive of the suites reviewed here, it is probably the most refined.
Corel, the owner of this title, might have a tactic wrong. The concern is to be compatible with MS Office. However, that might not be the main rival: they are competing with StarOffice and OpenOffice. And price counts in that race.
Sun's StarOffice gets better each time. It is now in its seventh version.
But let's start with the problems. There is still no integrated database.
Its weak database, Adabas, is just tagged on. It also lacks a mail client.
The rest is first class. It is particularly good at importing files from Microsoft Office.
StarOffice can be customised to do a variety of tasks depending on the kind of job that you are working on. The advantage of this is that the suite takes up much less space than Microsoft Office. The word processor, Writer, is particularly good. You can export to PDF and Flash. MS Office has wizards to help with tasks; the term in StarOffice is autopilots. You can use autopilots for letters, presentations, faxes and other standard office documents.
The Scottish Executive recently signed a deal with Sun and will manage the licences for schools who want to use the StarOffice suite. Schools in the rest of the UK simply have to go to the Sun website to gain a licence and a copy of the program. Sun claims to be committed to open standards with no-cost licensing backed by its service and support. Another advantage is that this Office suite works across platforms - Windows, Linux, Solaris and Unix are all supported. (OpenOffice has also been developed for Mac OS X.) The first thing that people ask about these packages is how compatible they are with MS Office. How compatible, it should also be asked, are the different versions of Office with each other? The answer is that, with some tweaking, you can get virtually everything to work.
The second thing people worry about is being thrown into an alien environment. If you have only used Microsoft Office, would you be able to move to these programs with little pain? Yes. Some of the word processors you can tweak to look indistinguishable from Word. Occasionally, you will be surprised to find that some features are better than Word. Most of these suites will export to PDF. Word cannot do that. With some of the programs you will not have to pay for an upgrade in a year or so's time.
Three factors will keep people with Word. One is that it is a good program, bloated but good. The second is inertia and a reluctance to take risks.
Third, some people are waiting for some of the impressive innovations like One Note to be built in to the Office suite. However, if Microsoft discerns a trend towards these Office clones, that might spur to real innovation at keen prices. Feedback from early users of Mac Office 2004 indicates just that.
Price: Student amp; Teacher License pound;29.99. Volume discounts for education site licences.
Tel: 020 7231 1004
Price: The CD is pound;24. A licence for 200 users is an additional pound;16.
Price: The program is free and can be downloaded here.
www.openoffice.org WordPerfect Office 12
Price: Single user pound;79 ex vat
Price: Free. The details of licensing are on the website. The program can be downloaded here.