Don’t Pay for Free Stuff

Most people using a Windows PC and a lot of Macintosh users work with Microsoft Office, no big surprise. I see three primary reasons for the product loyalty: compatibility, an understandable ignorance of other options, and simple habit. I also see three problems with MS Office: too many needless scripts, too much bloat, and too high a price. Another reason, unrelated to the focus here, has to do with on-site job requirements; however, most workers do not have to pay for their office programs.

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The three major problems, then, that I have experienced and about which most people complain to me are scripts, bloat and price. The scripts can be turned off, but they are a nuisance for me, nonetheless. Bloat is not as big a problem as it used to be. With today’s processors, MS Office runs plenty fast. The program is too big, but most new computers come with hard drives that are much larger than necessary for the average computer user. Who cares if Office takes up gigabytes of space? Actually, there is nothing functionally wrong with Microsoft Office. It does what Microsoft intends quite well. It may not be the best (according to personal preference), but it works. The price, however, is ridiculous. Why, then, do people pay for it? The biggest draw seems to be compatibility.

Compatibility used to be a problem. When I started writing, I did it on a Macintosh. I won’t date myself by citing the model. I had Microsoft Word, WordPerfect and ClarisWorks (later Appleworks) installed. I won’t date myself by citing the versions. In every aspect, every feature, Claris was the best for me, especially in its What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get transfer of computer screen to printed page. It was smaller and faster than MS Office. It also did not have as many annoying scripts as did MS Word. In addition, at that time, Claris had more fonts to choose from, including a Star Trek font that I liked.

When I began to teach and publish, the problems began. I couldn’t post my grades online because neither my Mac nor Claris was compatible with the university system. I sent my first novel to an interested published who couldn’t open the .cwk file. I had to get a Windows computer and write in Word just so I could work. For a while, I continued to write with my Windows version of Claris and save to Word. Then I opened the manuscript in Word and proofed for the glitches before sending it off. I found it interesting that Claris and WordPerfect could save to Claris, Word, WordPerfect and other formats, but Word could only save to variations of Word and .rtf. We all have to deal with minor pains in the ass. Eventually, I gave up on the formatting nuisance and just used Word on both my Mac and PC. Over the years, using Word became a grudging habit; although I often missed Appleworks. I learned that, in the big, real world, product promotion and conformity count more than productivity or convenience, although some people do see those damned scripts as a convenience. To each, his own or, as my sister-in-law says, “Cada persona tiene su propio culo.”

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Time has indeed moved onward and upward. Over the last few years, I have kept my eyes open. I found that now, Microsoft Office is not necessarily more compatible with other office suite products, but other systems are now perfectly compatible with MS Office. I’m sure that Microsoft does not want anyone to know that.

Best of all, several office suite options are completely and legally free. But, you say, Microsoft Office came with my new computer, installed for free. Yeah, sure. Like Norton Antivirus or whatever, MS Office comes in a lame starter or trial package that pushes consumers to purchase the full program. Currently, and according to the Microsoft site, the cheapest version of Microsoft Office (the Home and Student edition) costs $139.99 USD (a bit more or less, depending on the version) and takes up a bloated 1.5 GB of space, more or less.

To provide the situation a little perspective, that $139.99 price comes to $1863 pesos here in Mexico, at today’s exchange rate. Most of my middle-class family and friends here make $4000-15000 pesos a month, with the majority on the lower end. That means that a lot of people here would have to pay upwards of fifty percent of one month’s earnings just for the cheapest version of a licensed copy of Microsoft Office (list price $1699 MXN). In addition, $4-6000 pesos can buy a good (not top of the line, mall prices), new computer here. So, they buy a computer, and then pay thirty percent or so of the purchase price again for a single program, and not even a decent video game at that. For instance, you can get yourself a copy of Mortal Kombat X for less than half the $139.99 price of Microsoft Office, Student Edition.

Of course, people can argue the relative social merits of an office suite versus video games. Why can you buy a subscription to Hustler magazine for less than National Geographic? Why do doctors make less than horror writers? so forth. The point is that MS Office costs a lot for any type of program. You can buy computer operating systems for half to only twice the price (or free, as is the case with Linux) of Microsoft Office alone.

Even for United States residents, nongamers and Hustler magazine subscribers, $139.99 is a lot of cash if all you need to do is read documents from your job that you want to work on at home. For those consumers, the easiest alternative to MS Word comes in file viewers. They are free, small, fast, and convenient with no complicated toolbar. Download a file viewer, and you can say to hell with the others and rest easy. Surprisingly, Microsoft even offers one, free of charge.

Just be aware that using a file viewer is sort of like going to a strip club with very little money: all you can do is look. You cannot alter the document in any way. What if you need a full-featured office suite, but you don’t want to spend $139.99 or you don’t want the Microsoft bloat? Alternatives are plentiful in both free and reasonably priced paid versions, as well as in both installable and online versions.

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Installable options are probably most reasonably compared in typical use. I, for one, prefer to have my tools in hand—or, rather, on disk. The free 2014 version of Kingsoft Office takes up 61.4 MB of space. Yeah, that’s Megabytes. It is fully compatible with Microsoft Office and offers more useful features. It also has iOS and Android versions, in case you want to write a novel or something on your cell phone. The Professional (highest cost) version of Kingsoft Office costs $69.95, half the cost of the cheapest version of Microsoft Office. Apache OpenOffice, also free, takes up 134 MB. It is also fully compatible with MS Office. The free version of LibreOffice, probably the largest at 200 MB, is still much smaller than Microsoft Office, with better system compatibility. For instance, LibreOffice 5.0 (the latest version, as of this writing) is compatible with Windows XP to Windows 10, while Microsoft Office 2013 only works on Windows 7 and up.

Update 13 Agust 2013: I tested LibreOffice 5.0, and it does install and work on Windows 10. I used the Windows 10 Pro ISO driect from Microsoft.

There are others, as per the above links. For those of you who only need a text processor (i.e. Word) and not the whole suite, alternatives are also available, such as Abiword: free, good, small in size and compatible with Windows 2000 and up. The interface on some of the free alternative word processors and office suites is a bit different from Microsoft Office. Some interfaces are better. Better or just different, they may take a bit of adjustment; habits are sometimes hard to break. However, price (Free!) and new, high levels of compatibility make the effort worthwhile.

Compatible means that the program can open and save to Word. You can open, work with and save any Word document using the other office program. Friends can open and work with any document that you produce on the alternate program in their copy of Microsoft Word. You may initially be uncomfortable with some new file extensions, however. In Microsoft Word, for instance, most people know that you can save documents in .docx, .doc, .rtf and even .pdf. OpenOffice uses the new Open Document Format (ODF), with the extension: .odt, to save files in a .docx readable form. Don’t be put off by that. ODF is a newer, more flexible format that can work with Word as well as other file types.

“Open Document Format (ODF) is an international family of standards that is the successor of commonly used deprecated vendor specific document formats such as .doc, .wpd, .xls and .rtf.” opendocumentformat.org

Your friends can open .odt files with MS Office 2007 and up. If you still don’t want to mess with it, just save to .doc, the familiar format compatible with all MS Office suites back, at least, to 1997, no problem. There is even a free ODT Viewer for those in the above mentioned group who don’t need a full office suite, and only want to read documents. Don’t worry. In my practical experience with day-to-day use, the alternative office suites are fully compatible with Microsoft Word.

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Compatible does not necessarily mean that all of the features of Microsoft Office are included in the alternative office suites. Some offer the same features; some offer most features; a lot offer additional features.

If some feature that you need is not included in the free alternative that you like, you can probably find a legally free, standalone Microsoft version that will complete your package. I need Paint, for instance, and, although OpenOffice has its own version of Paint (Open Office Draw), I like the Microsoft version better. I found a complete, standalone Microsoft Paint version that I downloaded. It comes with both Paint 98 and Paint XP and works fine. Versions of Outlook and Publisher are also available. Just Google for what you need: “Download the free version of_______________ for Windows_____.” Check carefully because some versions are trial that only work for a limited time. Look for the truly free ones. Also make sure that the version you download is compatible with your operating system. Most are compatible at least with Windows XP-8. Some have Macintosh and Debian (Linux) versions as well. All things come to those who search.

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It works for me. So, with which programs am I writing this post? Apache OpenOffice 3 (the current version is 4.1.1), my free, standalone version of Paint XP, and my free Nexus Dock 15 (the latest update), for easy screenshots. I have tried OpenOffice, Abiword, and ThinkFree Office (the last at one third the price of Microsoft Office). I have used the three of them (ThinkFree in the free trial version) on both PCs and Macs. All of the programs work fine and are fully compatible with MS Office, the most used standard, so perhaps the relevant question is this: Why pay for something—at any price—when you can get another product with the same functionality legally free?