Linux Alternatives to Microsoft Office

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2335, 2005-09-02, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 22 and 24) and their website.

There are many reasons why an individual computer user or an organization would want to transition from Microsoft Windows to Linux as their desktop operating system. The decision-makers may be facing another round of expensive upgrades for their Windows OS and applications. Or they may simply have tired of the seemingly endless security weaknesses, virus damage, and spyware proliferation.

Yet regardless of the specific reasons, many unhappy Windows users are hesitant to switch over to Linux, because they are concerned that they will not be able to find adequate replacements for all of the major applications that they are accustomed to running in their Windows environment. Such computer users may believe that the Linux world, being based largely upon free software, might not offer enough robust programs to make the transition possible. Or they may think that what programs do exist must be compiled from scratch — a challenging if not impossible task for the typical user.

While it is true that each category of applications has many more titles that run on Windows than on Linux, there is at least one usable if not excellent application in each category — and sometimes several to choose from. This article will examine some of the better Linux-based applications for the most common computer tasks.

Open an Office Suite

The majority of PC users spend the bulk of their time working in so-called "office" or "productivity" applications — the primary categories being word processing and spreadsheet programs. These applications tend to be bundled together in "office suites". That term probably derives from Microsoft Office, which dominates the field, and whose components now overshadow previous leaders, such as WordPerfect. Microsoft Office can also dominate a hard drive; for instance, the various editions of the 2003 version consume anywhere from 260 MB to 790 MB!

The primary free and open source challenger in the productivity suite category, is OpenOffice.org, which is the name of the product, its Internet domain, and the organization that creates and promotes it. It works in 45 languages, and runs on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, and Solaris. OpenOffice.org comprises six components: Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Base, and Math.

Their word processor and desktop publishing program, Writer, is similar in many ways to Microsoft Word. It supports tables, diagrams, indexes, fields, illustrations, styles, frames, hyperlinks, spell checking, and auto-completion of words. Documents can be published in several formats, including PDF (readable by Adobe Acrobat) and HTML (i.e., Web pages). Unlike Microsoft's Word, files are saved in a nonproprietary format, using an extensible and standards-friendly technology called XML. Since most people still use Word, Writer is able to import and export to Word format.

OpenOffice.org's spreadsheet program, Calc, is similar to Microsoft's counterpart, Excel. Calc features all of the typical spreadsheet functionality, as well as formatting, styles, data mining tools, what-if scenarios, wizards, and natural language formulas. Like Writer, it saves spreadsheets in XML, and is able to read Excel spreadsheets (actually, "worksheets" organized in "workbooks") and write out in Excel format. Also like Writer, Calc allows the user to create custom macros, written in BASIC.

OpenOffice.org's answer to PowerPoint, called Impress, is a fully functional tool for creating multimedia presentations. It supports special effects, animation, 2D and 3D clip art, and user drawing capabilities. Files are stored in XML, and can be exported in PowerPoint and even Flash formats. Rounding out the OpenOffice.org package are Draw (for creating graphics and diagrams), Base (a database system), and Math (for manipulating mathematical equations).

What OpenOffice.org lacks in market penetration, it makes up for by leaving out the security problems that plague Microsoft Office, as well as the annoying Office "assistants" that add to the bloat. For these reasons and many others, a growing number of Linux distributions are opting to include OpenOffice.org as their default office suite.

More Free Solutions

But OpenOffice.org is not the only competition to Microsoft's flagship product. GNOME Office is composed of AbiWord (a word processor), Gnumeric (a spreadsheet program), and Gnome-DB (data access components). Like most Linux applications, GNOME Office is free, and runs on many varieties of Linux and Unix. It is built upon GNOME, which is both a Linux desktop environment, and a development platform.

AbiWord is a full-featured word processing program, similar to Microsoft Word. It can read and write all of the industry standard document types, including those generated by OpenOffice.org, Microsoft Word, and WordPerfect, in addition to Rich Text Format documents, and XHTML and HTML Web pages. Its capabilities can be expanded using plug-ins, for image manipulation, language translation, Google search, dictionary, and thesaurus.

The other primary component of Gnome Office is Gnumeric, an outstanding spreadsheet application that runs well on Linux, and also has a Windows port. It can import Microsoft Excel files, and supports all of the 363 worksheet functions found in Excel, plus 107 more. For developers, Gnumeric's biggest attraction is its extensibility, by allowing the user to write macros in the language Python. This can be especially attractive to anyone who is not interested in wrestling with Excel's clunky macro language, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA).

KDE, like its rival Linux desktop GNOME, offers a free and open source productivity suite, called Koffice. It is made up of KWord (word processing), KSpread (spreadsheets), KPresenter (presentations), Kivio (flowcharts), Karbon14 (vector drawing), Krita (image manipulation), KPlato (project management and planning), Kexi (data management), KChart (charts and graphs), and more.

Not Free, but Not Expensive

There are also office suites that involve a monetary price, but none of them are pricey, and none of them emanate from Redmond, Washington. For example, ThinkFree Office is Office compatible, but with a price tag far less than what Microsoft is asking. The sticker price on their Download Edition is less than $50. The company makes a point that their products cost less than one-third of Microsoft's, and yet are fully compatible.

Their word processor, Write, has all of the expected document editing features, including sections, columns, headers, footers, and full compatibility with Word files. Their spreadsheet program, Calc, supports all of the standard calculations, formatting, functions, charts, and other features. Its files are completely interchangeable with those of Excel. ThinkFree Office runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac. Its interface was designed to be as similar as possible to that of Microsoft Office (but probably with enough minor differences to avoid a legal blitzkrieg). It currently supports 11 languages, and more are being added.

The fact that there are so many alternatives to Microsoft Office, should help to dispel the myth that switching from Windows to Linux requires going back to writing plain text documents using the dreaded "vi" programmers editor, or doing calculations on reams of engineering paper. The Linux-friendly productivity suites are there to be explored. Like Linux, their prices will never break the bank.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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