By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, September 13, 2007
In the workplace, Microsoft Office is as inevitable as drawn-out meetings and bad coffee. But Microsoft's combination of Word, Excel and PowerPoint is not the only way to write, crunch numbers or prepare slideshows. And for home users, it isn't even the best way anymore.
The newest non-Microsoft options look better in part because they no longer try to mimic the bloated, pricey Office, which costs $150 for homes, $400 and up for businesses.
For years, Office rivals tried to match Office feature for feature in the hope that nobody would find anything missing. Corel's WordPerfect Office and the free OpenOffice.org accurately emulate the Office experience, but they haven't made things much easier.
A few new competitors are taking a different approach, providing only the features most users are likely to use. They can't replace Office in every office but can stand in for it in many homes.
Two of these Office alternatives are free Web sites that you can use in any new browser: Google Documents and Zoho Office.
The other, Apple's $79, Mac-only iWork '08, is a traditional program that incorporates some refreshing changes to the standard productivity bundle.
Google's and Zoho's chief advantage is not making you install anything to get started: Visit http://docs.google.com or http://zoho.com, log into your account and you'll see a page that works shockingly like a traditional program. You can select commands off menus and drag and drop text and numbers, without any wait for parts of the page to reload or redraw.
Google provides only a word processor and a spreadsheet, though it is working on a presentation program, while Zoho offers all three types of applications. These programs leave out some features needed by more advanced users of Word, Excel or PowerPoint, such as footnotes -- forget writing an academic paper with them. But you'd be fine jotting down a letter or calculating the costs of a new loan.
On the other hand, Google and Zoho provide a feature that Microsoft Office users can only get if they work in an office running Microsoft's server software: they let you invite other people to comment on and edit your documents from within their own Web browsers.
Both of these programs can save your work as Office-compatible files, but you may never need to bother with that when sharing it on the Web is so simple.
Google and Zoho need a broadband connection to work well, but Zoho can also function without any Internet connection if you first install extra software called Google Gears. This offline mode only lets you read your Zoho word-processing documents. This Pleasanton, Calif., company says it will soon let users edit work offline as well, making this Web application usable on a plane and other places beyond the Web's reach.
Compared with the Web wizardry of Google and Zoho, Apple's iWork '08 can seem much less interesting. But the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and Keynote presentation programs in this bundle bring notable improvements .
IWork outdoes Microsoft Office most notably by helping you make more use of the information already on your computer.
For example, if you want to add a picture to a document, spreadsheet or presentation, you can browse through your iPhoto library from within a small iWork window instead of having to remember which folder you stashed a photo in months before. If you're managing a wedding guest list, perhaps the most intense use that people make of spreadsheets at home, you can add people to the list by dragging names from Mac OS X's Address Book right into iWork's Numbers.
Apple has also made these features easier to discover than the tools in Microsoft Office, thanks to a set of prefab templates, ready to be filled with your data. Its refreshingly simplified toolbar only spotlights the commands relevant to what you're working on at the moment.
IWork's Numbers program is the most fascinating part of this bundle. There hasn't been a new spreadsheet program in years, much less one that could be described as "fascinating." Numbers ditches the traditional, intimidating graph-paper look and instead invites you to mix multiple tables, slick 3-D charts and graphics on a single page. Unfortunately, it does too little to explain the mathematical formulas you can apply to your data.
Like Google and Zoho, iWork can read and write Microsoft's Office formats. It can lose minor details when converting documents into Office files but can also save them as read-only PDF files that will look identical on any computer or smartphone.
None of these three Office alternatives eliminates the usefulness of Office for people who are paid to use it. But all three give people at home far fewer reasons to keep coughing up $150 or more for Microsoft's once-inevitable suite.