Executive Summary:

Microsoft Office has long enjoyed the top spot among office productivity solutions, but it's pricey. If you want to save some money and can live without a few Office features (that you probably don't use anyway), OpenOffice 3.0 might be the right choice.


When it comes to office productivity suites, Microsoft Office has become the de facto standard for millions of companies, schools, organizations, and individuals. It also isn't cheap ($500 retail for Office Professional 2007), a fact that isn't lost on cost-conscious IT pros. "As a small company, we have to maintain a tight IT budget," IT Director Jack Miller said in an email sent to Windows IT Pro back in 2007. "In 2005, we were still running Windows 98 and Microsoft Office 97. When Microsoft announced it wouldn't be supporting these products anymore, I knew we had to upgrade but didn't have enough money in my budget to upgrade both products." Miller opted for the Windows XP upgrade, dumping Microsoft Office in exchange for OpenOffice, an open-source alternative.

Miller's story isn't unique. As budgets get squeezed, many IT pros look for inexpensive alternatives to costly existing solutions. OpenOffice is a valid alternative for some, but the lack of file compatibility with Microsoft Office 2007 and a somewhat kludgy interface helped keep the product a niche player. OpenOffice 3.0 addresses many of those concerns. If you’re an IT pro looking to migrate to Office 2007, you should give OpenOffice 3.0 a look. (A quick aside to the OpenOffice marketing team: Please dump the tortuous "OpenOffice.org" product name and stick with OpenOffice, which I've taken the liberty of doing in this column.)

After spending a few days with the latest release, I'm convinced that OpenOffice 3.0 can be a viable Office alternative for many. Like Microsoft Office, OpenOffice consists of a number of disparate applications bundled together in one application suite, including a word processor, flat-file database, presentation program, and spreadsheet. Microsoft has given each of these separate OpenOffice apps a host of upgrades and improvements over OpenOffice 2.0, ranging from improved support for additional languages and increased performance, to a new Start Center feature, and a number of other interface and user experience improvements. If you’re accustomed to the pre-Office 2007 locations for your File, Edit, View, and other pull-down menus, OpenOffice will feel like a comfortable old shoe (Office 2007's dramatically different ribbon menu has led to some user confusion and increased training costs, factors that you should consider when evaluating any potential migration to Office 2007).

The biggest gripe many users had with OpenOffice was file incompatibility with Microsoft Office, and OpenOffice 3.0 goes a long way towards addressing that gripe. The new version now reads (but does not write) Microsoft Office XML files such as the .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx formats. During my testing, these document types rendered well, with just a few minor errors and glitches, primarily in large, complex documents that make extensive use of advanced Office features such as comments and revisions. OpenOffice3.0 also supports Access 2007 .accdb files, offers improved support for Visual Basic VBA macros, and reads and writes the emerging ODF 1.2 and OOXML open document formats. The OpenOffice community is also developing new plug-ins and feature improvements that you can download from the OpenOffice.org extensions repository at extensions.services.openoffice.org. OpenOffice 3.0 is also the first version of OpenOffice to offer a native OS X version for Macintosh users.

You'll get no argument from me when it comes to which office application suite is better on a feature-to-feature comparison basis; Microsoft Office 2007 is clearly the more robust and capable application. I'd rather drive a Ferrari than a Ford, but cost is the kicker: How many people truly use all the features and functionality of every Microsoft Office application? On the flipside, I don't buy the argument that OpenOffice 3.0 is an alternative without any cost, as any IT pro will tell you that even free applications require deployment, maintenance, and user training resources that don't come cheaply. All that said, it's undeniable that OpenOffice 3.0 is an attractive alternative to Office 2007 for many organizations. The Office suite has always been considered a cash cow for Microsoft, but new products like OpenOffice 3.0—as well as cloud-based solutions like Google Docs and Zoho—may force Redmond to put that bulky bovine on a "get more for less" exercise regimen.

Download OpenOffice 3.0 at www.openoffice.org.