Microsoft Office is on just about every Windows desktop in the world. Although your company's volume license might be less than the full $399 retail price for Microsoft Office Standard Edition 2003, supplying everyone with an office suite is still likely a significant expense. Alternatives to Office are available, but your business partners probably use Office and all your business data is locked in the Office binary file format. Is switching to another vendor's office suite really an option? To answer that question, I tested Corel WordPerfect Office 12 and OpenOffice.org 1.1.4 against Microsoft Office 2003. (IBM Lotus SmartSuite was unavailable for review.) Although the functionality of the three suites is similar and both WordPerfect Office 12 and OpenOffice.org 1.1.4 can read and write Office documents, I found that many document elements don't display correctly in converted files. Let's take a closer look at the products.

Testing Criteria
I evaluated each suite on its ability to read and write Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint files, performance when handling a large document, support for large-scale deployment, and price. (For more detailed information about performance, see the Web-exclusive sidebar "Performance Comparisons," http://www.windowsitpro.com, InstantDoc ID 47654.)

Although I'm sure die-hard advocates of each product will beg to differ, I found no significant differences in the core functionality of each suite in regards to creating and editing text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in their native formats. Even the menu items were similar in most cases. When they weren't, the online help in both WordPerfect Office and OpenOffice.org had Word feature-comparison tables that let me quickly find the feature I was looking for. Both WordPerfect Office and OpenOffice.org support macro scripting languages similar to Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). Although neither product could convert and run Office macros, OpenOffice.org preserved macros so that they could be used when a user reopened the document with Office.

WordPerfect Office 12
WordPerfect Office 12 comes in three editions: Standard ($189), Small Business ($349), and Professional ($399). The Standard edition includes the WordPerfect word processor; the Quattro Pro 12 spreadsheet; and Presentations 12, a PowerPoint equivalent. The Small Business edition adds the WordPerfect Mail email client, the PaintShop Pro graphics program, and WordPerfect OfficeReady business-planning software. WordPerfect Mail can access Exchange email via IMAP but doesn't support Exchange calendaring. The Professional edition additionally includes Paradox, a Microsoft Access–like relational database, among other features.

To test WordPerfect Office's ability to use Office documents, I used Office to create Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents by using some of the most common features of each program. I opened each document by using the appropriate program from both Office and WordPerfect Office and compared the documents side by side to see differences in rendering. For WordPerfect and Word, I also compared printed versions of the documents. You can find my original Office documents and versions saved with both WordPerfect Office and OpenOffice.org in the Web-exclusive sidebar, "Sample Microsoft Office Documents Saved with Corel WordPerfect Office 12 and Sun Microsystems OpenOffice.org 1.1.4," http://www.windowsitpro.com, Instant Doc 47655.

Word processing. WordPerfect failed to render some minor and more important features from all three proprietary Office file formats (.doc, .xls, and .ppt); for more information about the file formats that Office uses, see the sidebar "Microsoft Office File Formats." Figure 1 shows a sample native Microsoft Word 2003 document, and Figure 2 shows that document opened in WordPerfect Office 12. The most egregious error in the Word document was WordPerfect's inability to convert change-tracking data. It lost some minor formatting, such as double strikethrough and paragraph borders, WordArt, and the fill color in a drawing element. It also added some blank pages around continuous section breaks. I didn't find any differences between the printed and online comparisons.

When working with its native file formats, WordPerfect is equivalent to Word in most respects and superior in some. The WordPerfect users I know are always quick to tell me about WordPerfect's Reveal Codes feature, which displays the hidden formatting codes within the document. This feature lets you quickly fix any formatting issues and truly is wonderful. Office 2003 has a similar feature called Reveal Formatting, but it doesn't show where formatting changes begin and end in the document and will probably disappoint WordPerfect users. WordPerfect also comes with built-in support for creating PDF files (Word doesn't) and a typesetting feature that let me make small adjustments to word positions, something I couldn't duplicate in Word.

Spreadsheet. Quattro Pro had a few problems converting an Excel document. I tested 15 Excel functions across six function categories. The only function that Quattro Pro failed to convert was the financial function Net Present Value (NPV); if you use certain Excel formulas frequently, check that Quattro Pro will convert them before you buy WordPerfect Office 12. Quattro Pro lost formatting on a date field, failed to correctly render the formatting on a chart, and didn't convert a Pivot Table to a Quattro Pro CrossTab report. Although all these things were fixable, I wouldn't want to have to share the converted document with a customer or business partner.

>Presentation. Presentations, the PowerPoint-like presentations program, was the poorest of WordPerfect Office's components at converting Office documents. Presentation converted regular slides fairly well, including charts and graphics, but transitions, action buttons, animation, and slide notes were all lost in the conversion. Although I could save native Presentations files in PowerPoint format, most of the text appeared hidden on the margin of each slide, rendering the presentation useless.

>Deployment. Like Office, WordPerfect Office 12 uses Windows Installer and inherits all its associated functionality, such as Group Policy deployment. It supports silent installs, as do the Windows Installer patches that Corel releases for updates. WordPerfect Office 12 is well-suited for enterprise deployment.

WordPerfect Office 12 offers nearly identical document-creation and editing features to Office at a lower price. However, its limitations in converting Office documents make it problematic for large businesses that have many existing documents and need to share documents with business partners that use Office. If you use Exchange for calendaring, WordPerfect Mail can't replace Microsoft Outlook, and buying Outlook separately will negate your cost savings. WordPerfect Office could be an excellent choice for small businesses whose existing documents don't represent a significant investment, aren't complex enough to have the conversion problems I mentioned, and have limited communications using Office documents. WordPerfect Office might also be a good choice for companies that need WordPerfect OfficeReady for business planning and accounting, since Microsoft's competing product, Microsoft Small Business Accounting, hasn't yet been released.



WordPerfect Office 12
Contact: Corel * 877-652-6735
Web: http://www.corel.com
Price: $249 Full/$149 Upgrade (boxed Standard Edition) or $189 Full/$129 Upgrade (download Standard Edition)
Summary
Pros: Commercial support at a lower price than Microsoft Office
Cons: Poor Microsoft PowerPoint document support
Rating: 3 out of 5
Recommendation: Offers potential cost savings if you don't need Microsoft Office Outlook and your existing Office documents don't represent a significant investment

OpenOffice.org 1.1.4
OpenOffice.org is a free, open-source office suite based on StarOffice, a product that Sun purchased in 1999. You can also buy StarOffice from Sun for $60 per user, which includes the Adabas D database, customer support, and some extra fonts, templates, and file filters based on code not licensed for open-source distribution. OpenOffice.org 1.1.4, the current stable release, includes the Writer word processor, Calc spreadsheet, Impress presentation software, and Draw vector-based drawing program. Version 1.9, the current beta precursor to Open Office.org 2.0, also includes Math, a mathematical equation editor similar to features found in both WordPerfect and Word. Like WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org can read and write Office documents, but not all elements convert correctly. Although OpenOffice.org's document-editing features were comparable to the other two suites, the product's performance and deployment features disappointed me.

>Word processing. I performed the same document-conversion tests for OpenOffice.org as for WordPerfect Office. OpenOffice.org Writer performed well converting most elements of my Word document but failed to convert the page size and orientation for a section that had a special page setup. However, Writer converted the changes to the margin that I made on that page. Like WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org also failed to convert paragraph borders and macros. It displayed WordArt but missed some properties, such as the angle of the text, as Figure 3 shows. I also had sporadic problems reopening Word documents I'd saved. OpenOffice.org 1.1.4 hung with 100 percent processor utilization for 5 minutes before I closed it. Other documents worked without a problem, though. Both Word and the OpenOffice.org 1.9 beta, which I also tested, opened the same documents without a problem, so my experience was probably just a bug that has since been fixed. Both OpenOffice.org versions preserved changes I'd made by using Word's Track Changes, which gives it an edge over WordPerfect for sharing documents with Word users.

>Spreadsheet. OpenOffice.org was a bit more successful than Word at converting an Excel document, but it lost the number of digits to display in fraction and formula formatting. Calc also provided most of Excel's formula-auditing features, but I was disappointed that it didn't identify inconsistent formulas, one of my favorite Excel features.

>Presentation. OpenOffice.org Impress also did well converting my PowerPoint presentation. It kept my master slide, notes, action buttons, and sounds but lost transitions and animations.

>Deployment. OpenOffice.org includes a setup.exe file for deployment. Although you can perform silent installs from a response file, creating such a response file involves manually editing a text file instead of creating it based on responses to a GUI install. Documentation about the silent install feature is also hard to come by, but I got it to work by copying a file I found in the OpenOffice.org forums. Mass deployment is possible with OpenOffice.org 1.1.4, but it's not quite as easy as deploying the Office .msi file through Group Policy. OpenOffice.org 1.1.4 also lacks a patching mechanism; I had to apply a recommended security patch by downloading a .dll file and placing it in the correct directory, a scriptable but potentially cumbersome process. Fortunately, the OpenOffice.org 1.9 beta includes a Windows Installer (.msi) package, so future deployment prospects for the product are excellent.

It's hard to criticize free software that provides most of the functionality you're likely to need, but when it comes to employee productivity, compromise can be expensive. OpenOffice.org did better overall at converting my Office documents than WordPerfect, but the UI was occasionally sluggish and the deployment procedures were inadequate. I believe OpenOffice.org has a short way to go to start taking market share from Microsoft and is an excellent solution for individuals (I use it at home), but I'm still sticking with Office for business use for now.



OpenOffice.org 1.1.4
Contact: OpenOffice.org
Sam Hiser, OpenOffice.org Marketing Project Lead, 508-627-5944
Web: http://www.openoffice.org
Price: Free
Summary
Pros: Good document conversion for common features
Cons: Performance lags in large documents
Rating: 4 out of 5
Recommendation: An excellent alternative for home or small-business use, but you might encounter document-sharing problems during business use.

Office 2003
Being shackled to the Office binary file format isn't the only reason so many organizations use Office. The product also has some great features that go beyond document editing. For example, Office 2003 lets users edit and save documents directly from Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server document workspaces without having to save them locally. This capability lets you easily add version control and discussion forums to file sharing. Office 2003 also includes the research task pane, which will look up words or phrases for you in a dictionary and thesaurus, look up stock symbols and company profiles, search for help with using the product online as well as through the built-in Help, or translate your document into another language. Office 2003 also supports smart tags across Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Smart tags are fields that automatically update themselves with data from various sources, such as stock quotes from the Internet.

>Deployment. Most IT pros have experience with deploying some version of Office to multiple clients on a network. If you haven't deployed Office 2003 yet, the process is about the same. It's Windows Installer–based and supports silent installs, so that you can deploy it by using Group Policy. You can use Windows Installer transforms to apply custom settings and create your own response-based transforms with the included tools. If you don't have Microsoft Office Professional Enterprise Edition 2003, however, Office 2003 requires users to activate each installation by sending information over the Internet to Microsoft. Although nagware of this sort is acceptable on shareware products, it's an unexpected and annoying drawback on something you've already paid for. It's also something you won't have to deal with if you choose WordPerfect or OpenOffice.org.

The biggest drawback to Office is its price. Retail pricing for the full edition is more than $100 more per license than WordPerfect Office 12. Upgrade pricing is $90 more, and because Corel offers its upgrade pricing to customers switching from Office, you could certainly save money by switching. OpenOffice.org is free, even for commercial use, making Microsoft's product seem even more expensive by comparison.



Microsoft Office 2003
Contact: Microsoft * 800-642-7676
Web: http://www.microsoft.com/office
Price: $399 Full/$239 Upgrade (Standard Edition)
Summary
Pros: Current de facto standard; integration with Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server
Cons: Pricey
Rating: 4 out of 5
Recommendation: Until competing products perfect document conversions, Office is worth the price.

Office Still #1
Office 2003 is the most expensive of the three products I tested, but nevertheless I give it the Editor's Choice. I failed to find any features in the other products compelling enough to make me want to switch. My existing documents and the people I share documents with all use Office's binary format. Even if only a small number of documents don't display correctly in WordPerfect or OpenOffice.org, avoiding the hassle of fixing them is worth the extra cost. Since I'm not particularly excited about any of Office 2003's unique features, I'll be eager to take a second look should WordPerfect or OpenOffice.org leverage Microsoft's XML-based formats to improve their ability to convert documents in a future release.