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Microsoft Office vs.

This article courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to .

For a while, nonprofit organizations' choice of office suites was limited to Microsoft Office or ... Microsoft Office. But in the last couple of years, a viable open-source option has emerged: Should you consider OpenOffice? Will it make sense for your users and organization? What are the differences between these two office suites?

We will compare Microsoft Office 2003 Professional to 2.0 -- or at least some key parts of these suites. Unfortunately, comparing office suites isn't an exact science. The applications packaged together aren't completely analogous, so we will limit this article's comparisons to a couple of areas:

We have to talk about Word Processors, of course, which means Microsoft's Word 2003 vs. OpenOffice's Writer. An office suite just isn't an office suite without a spreadsheet, so we'll look at Excel 2003 vs. OpenOffice's Calc. Email tools and calendaring are also a critical part of an office suite, but hasn't released any email or calendar software. We'll compare Outlook 2003 with Thunderbird (email) and Sunbird (calendar), made by the Mozilla Corporation. These tools are also free, open-source, and often used with OpenOffice, although they need to be installed separately. There's more to both office suites, of course. OpenOffice's Base is similar to Access 2003. PowerPoint 2003 is matched with Impress. To correspond to Microsoft's Visio, there's OpenOffice's Draw. OpenOffice offers an equation editor called Math, while Microsoft Office offers Publisher 2003 for desktop publishing. Because we all have a limited amount of patience, we'll leave these comparisons for another article.

At a High Level

There's more to office suites than feature lists. In fact, OpenOffice and Microsoft Office are similar enough that actual feature differences are likely to be just one of many factors in your decision making. But philosophy, system requirements, support, usability...these are the things that keep us up nights.

Delusional Utopian Hippies vs. Cynical Corporate Greedheads

The Microsoft philosophy is very different from OpenOffice's or Mozilla's, which use an open-source model in which software is jointly created, often by volunteers, and freely distributed, allowing anyone to use, redistribute, adapt, or improve their code. Microsoft uses a much more tightly controlled commercial-license model, in which the sale of its software pays for professional programmers and project managers, testing, management, marketing and sales, and shareholder dividends.

There are a lot of strong feelings behind the great open-source-versus-commercial-license debate. Some people won't use any software tools that aren't freely distributed, while others refuse to buy generic medications because they want pharmaceutical companies to be rewarded for their research and development investments. If you have strongly held beliefs about the importance of private-sector research and development versus the desire to share information freely, we suspect that we're not going to be able to change your mind. So we'll limit our comments here to the tangible benefits of these models.

Open-Source Applications are Often Free, like Beer. You have to love getting software for free, and OpenOffice and Mozilla software are always free. However, if you're a U.S.-based nonprofit, Microsoft Office 2003 is also free or almost free (through or NPower or TechSoup Stock, for instance), with very few exceptions. Updates to Open-Source Applications are Also Free, like Beer. It is very unlikely that OpenOffice or Mozilla will ever charge for any kind of program update, as they are free by philosophy and copyright. However, Microsoft gives away Office as part of a philanthropic program which could change, meaning you might have to pay to update the suite down the road. Open-Source Code is Always Free, like Speech. You're allowed to do anything you want to with open-source code. You can study how the program works and adapt it to your needs. You can improve the program or build something completely new from it and release your improvements to the public so that the whole community benefits. If this is important to you, Microsoft doesn't offer anything like it. Commercial Licensed Software Has a Company Behind the Code. Microsoft depends on sales of Office and its other software to remain profitable, so it has a strong interest in making sure Office has the features, support, and interface that will make it useful to people like you. Its success in these areas have provided Office with a large installed user and support base, and Microsoft has used its financial strength to help build a deep pool of talented developers, a mature platform, and polished user interfaces. While OpenOffice has a formal relationship with Sun Microsystems, the mandates for open-source applications like OpenOffice are a bit fuzzier and tend to be driven by tech-savvy programmers. In the past, this has resulted in a less polished interface and weaker documentation, but these elements have been substantially improved in 2.0. Open-Source Has Code Beyond a Company. Because its source code is available for anyone who would like to improve it, OpenOffice and Mozilla are not dependent on its current crop of developers and the code won't disappear if the organization that created falters. In general, good open-source code does not disappear; the same is not always true for closed-source, commercial projects. That being said, it doesn't appear that Microsoft is in any danger of going bankrupt in the foreseeable future. Open-Source Tends to Use Open Standards.'s native files, called OpenDocument, adhere to publicly agreed-upon, readily available standards (though can also read and write Microsoft files like Word's .doc and Excel's .xls, these are not its default file types). Thus any other software that supports these standards can read and write OpenOffice documents. Popular open standards, like HTML, HTTP, and URL, tend to take on a life of their own; closed standards are in danger of going the way of the Betamax...though, again, the risk of Miscrosoft formats faltering seems minimal. System Support: Typical or Criminally Old Computers For most computers that you would actually want to use, both OpenOffice and Microsoft Windows will work fine. While OpenOffice is said to be a bit slower, particularly in opening up complex documents in Microsoft's proprietary formats, the difference is negligible if you've purchased your computer in the last couple of years. Both platforms also offer comparable support for the Mac.

OpenOffice offers better support for older computers than the latest version of Microsoft Office. Office 2003 says its minimum spec is a Pentium 450 MHz with 256 MB of RAM, while OpenOffice lists a Pentium 166 MHz processor with 128 MB of RAM. While Office 2003 requires Window 2000 or XP to run fully, OpenOffice will run on Windows 98. What's more, OpenOffice will run under Linux (as well as Solaris and BSD), and Linux runs much more effectively on old computers than Windows 2000 or XP. This makes Linux and OpenOffice a practical combination even for quite old computers, especially when few other applications are needed (in a computer lab setting, for instance).

As an interesting side note,, Thunderbird, and Sunbird are all available as portable applications, while Microsoft Office 2003 is not. For some people, being able to carry around their personally configured office suite on a USB thumbdrive, portable hard drive, or iPod is life altering. Others may think those people are crazy and need to get a life.

Usability, Training, and Support Anyone who has used Word or Excel will feel comfortable in Write and Calc. While previous versions of OpenOffice had a less polished interface, version 2.0 has taken a page from Microsoft's book, instituting a polished and relatively familiar user interface. In fact, they've take a lot of pages from Microsoft's book: in most ways the interfaces are nearly identical, down to the formula syntax in Excel/Calc. You can think of moving from MS Office to OpenOffice as if you were moving from Office 2000 to Office 2003: there are small differences, and users who have learned things by rote may need to be trained in the new software, but the concepts are all the same.

More advanced features tend to differ between the two packages. The template documents are substantially different between the two suites, so those used to using pre-packaged layouts for documents or charts may need to make some adjustments.

The same is true of Thunderbird and Outlook: going back and forth is pretty seamless. But unfortunately, that's not true for Sunbird, Mozilla's calendaring tool. While Outlook is mature, stable, and easy to use, Sunbird is really not as of yet (Mozilla still lists it as Alpha). For now, none of the open-source calendar products, or those offered by the dozen or so Web 2.0 companies who have introduced calendars in the past year, can compete with Outlook for simplicity, usability, documentation, and support.

There's more support for Microsoft Office 2003 than anyone can possibly use: dozens of books, official support from Microsoft itself, sanctioned support from people who have earned Microsoft licenses, professional call centers, and a Web full of sites that contain tips and guides for modifying, configuring, and using Office 2003 software.'s support is more community driven, and generally free, with a documentation project and discussion forums led by volunteers. It's easier to find Microsoft Office training and support, but it's likely to cost more. It depends what you prefer.

One final consideration for the IT staff types out there: because OpenOffice has much looser licensing requirements, you don't need to worry about installing unlimited copies around your office or for friends or partner organizations. When you buy or recieve a free version of Office 2003, you may only install it on a specified number of computers within your organization, so you'll need to keep track of exactly where it's been installed.

Sharing Documents with Friends and Neighbors In general, both Office 2003 and OpenOffice can create files that can be read by pretty much everyone else. In the case of Office 2003, this is because Microsoft has established de facto formats such as .doc for Word documents and .xls for Excel. OpenOffice, on the other hand, uses open standards for its native files, but can both read and write files in Microsoft's formats. OpenOffice has invested a lot of effort in ensuring that Writer and Calc users can share documents with Microsoft users and has succeeded in all but a few specific cases mentioned below, like Excel pivot tables. OpenOffice users can even choose to automatically save out files in Microsoft formats by default.

Security Just a brief word about security. MS Office, OpenOffice, Firebird, and Thunderbird are all reasonably secure as long as you follow standard procedures (install updates and patches as soon as they're released, maintain firewalls, antivirus, and antispyware, etc). They involve different philosophies, however: while open-source tools let everyone know about possible security issues (allowing users to protect themselves and hackers to potentially exploit issues), Microsoft keeps any issues close to the vest (thus possibly preventing hackers from finding out about them, but forestalling users' ability to take precautionary steps). It's like the dilemma that arises each time police officers are faced with a serial killer: should they alert people and possibly make the perp move on to another community, or should they keep their investigation quiet and zero in on the guy? There are strong arguments for both approaches.

Forecasting the Future Of course, any commitment to a software package involves taking into account not just where they are now, but where they are going. Predicting the future is always an iffy business, but we'll tell you what we know. Microsoft has already announced some details of Office 2007, which will be released later this year. Major changes include a snazzy new and somewhat simplified interface to all their tools and substantial integration with two of their other products, Sharepoint and Microsoft CRM. OpenOffice continues to gain strong backing from large sponsors, primarily Sun, though Google has also formally committed resources and it looks as though they will continue to strengthen their relationship with OpenOffice. In addition, Mozilla (which guides the Thunderbird and Sunbird projects) announced that it had made around $70 Million in revenue last year. It seems very likely that Microsoft, OpenOffice, and Mozilla are going to be around for a while.

Delving Down So let's get on with it: a head-to-head comparison of the feature differences between the two suites. Perhaps the most striking thing about this comparison is how fundamentally similar the applications are. Below, we've done our best to itemize all the major differences between each application, and you'll notice there's not a ton of them. You need to be doing pretty complex things before you find either suite lacking.

Word Processors Word 2003 features and benefits that Writer doesn't have: Grammar checking. Though there's some talk about the shortcomings of Word's grammar checker, it seems to find our mistakes far more often than we find its mistakes. Writer does not come with a grammar checker, though a plug-in, LanguageTool, is available. LanguageTool, an independent open-source project, is an impressive accomplishment, but its usefulness does not come close to approaching the resources built into Word. Support of Word Macros. Automation fans can make extensive use of Word macros (sequences of commands that can be recorded and played back later). Some users depend on macros in order to work efficiently, while others have never heard of them. Writer does not support Word macros. Advanced Features. According to, Word supports online collaboration, Smart Tags, highly flexible outlining, smart table formatting, and a research task pane. Writer doesn't. PCMag also reports that Word is better than Writer at finding (and replacing) special characters, like dashes. It's important to remember the potential for downside in Word's (and Excel's and PowerPoint's) features: if you aren't careful, all of your edits and personal metadata can be made available to anyone with whom you share your documents. Animated Text. Word can create animated text. Writer can't. (Some might view this as a point in Writer's favor.) Writer features and benefits that Word 2003 doesn't have: Creating PDFs. Writer has built in support for exporting documents as PDF (Acrobat format), a useful resource. In the current release of Word, you need a third-party application like Adobe Acrobat or the open-source PDFCreator. (Microsoft has announced that it plans to include this feature in the upcoming Office 2007.) Simplicity. For those who feel that Word is overly complex, Writer offers all the basic and mid-level functions in an environment which feels familiar but simplified. HTML Production. HTML purists tend to favor Writer's markup to Word's, though few people with knowledge of HTML use either editor in producing web pages. For simple tasks, theWeb Wizard makes it incredibly easy to produce pages with HTML, PDF, and images. Writer Macros. Writer has it's own macro and scripting feature that organizes your macros in a tree-structured display. Usability of Find-and-Replace. According to, $quot;Advanced find-and-replace operations (such as those involving fonts and attributes like italics) are easier to manage in Writer than in Word's confusing Find dialog.$quot; File Size. Writer's native format generally creates smaller files than Microsoft Word's. Spreadsheets Excel 2003 features and benefits that Calc doesn't have: Support of Excel Macros and Pivot Tables. As with Word users, Excel users often make extensive use of macros. Calc does not support Excel macros. A similar situation applies to Excel's use of Pivot Tables; there's no support for Excel Pivot Tables in Calc. Calc offers its own pivot-table-like feature called Data Pilot, as well as its own macro functionality, but Excel users will not be able to port this kind of data into Calc or open the data created in Calc. Support of Excel Charts and Graphs. There are reports that Calc has trouble translating some Excel-generated charts and graphs. Calc features and benefits that Excel 2003 doesn't have: Creating PDFs. Calc, like Writer, has native support for exporting documents as PDF (Acrobat format). Interface Details. found $quot;Calc's menus and dialogs easier to navigate than the corresponding dialogs in Excel.$quot; Email Clients Outlook 2003 features and benefits that Thunderbird doesn't have: Integration with a Calendar. For many of us, it makes sense to combine an email client with a calendar application and a to do list, and Outlook does it well. There's a reason that Outlook is many people's tool of choice. Spell and Grammer checking. Integration with Word leverages Microsoft's spelling- and grammar-checking prowess. Thunderbird features and benefits that Outlook 2003 doesn't have: Keyword Searching. Thurderbird's search is much better than Outlook's, although the oft-overlooked Lookout, a Microsoft acquisition, ably addresses this Outlook deficiency. RSS Support. Thunderbird has native support for RSS. To get RSS feeds in Outlook 2003, you can use one of the great, free, open-source services like RSSFwd. Plain-Text Email. Thunderbird makes it easy to send and receive plain text. If you want to ensure that you receive all your email in plain text format through Outlook, you'll have to edit your registry. Calendars Outlook 2003 features and benefits that Sunbird doesn't have: Shared Calendaring. Exchange may not be a joy to administer, but once you've worked in an office where sharing calendars, meeting invitations, and contacts is as simple as the Exchange/Outlook combination makes it, you will never want to be without this ability. There is not currently a Windows-based, open-source program that offers the groupware features available to staff members whose employers offer Exchange/Outlook. Palm Integration. Outlook 2003 easily synchs with Palm calendars. Stability and Ease of Use. As discussed above, Outlook is stable and easy to use, while Sunbird is not as mature. Sunbird features and benefits that Outlook 2003 doesn't have: iCal Support. Native support for the open iCal format, meaning you can access your calendar or exchange appointments via email with any of the dozens of software packages that support iCal. Exit, Pursued by Bear What do we recommend? Frankly, that depends on you. Software is like food: some of it is unfit for human consumption, but most is a matter of taste and what you're looking for. We'll take a look, though, at a few core scenarios.

Your office is happily using free Office 2003 licenses. Are you able to get Office 2003 for free? Is your staff happy with it and comfortable using it to get your work done? Then we don't see a lot of upside in changing for the sake of change. You have a small, technically comfortable staff, philosophically aligned with open-source tools. If your staff would prefer open-source over Microsoft for philosophical reasons, and can roll with small changes in interface and less formal support, OpenOffice is a completely viable alternative that doesn't require the sacrifice of productivity. Your staff depends on Outlook's shared calendaring or complex Excel functionality. Do you schedule a lot of meetings via Outlook's integrated calendaring and email functionality? Then Sunbird and Firebird likely won't meet your needs. Do you rely on Excel pivot tables or share a lot of complex Excel spreadsheets with external organizations? Then it may not make sense to move to OpenOffice. You need to provide basic office software on old computers. If you are looking to support only basic functionality and need to use older computers -- for a computer lab, for instance -- then a Linux/OpenOffice combination is hard to beat. Personally, we like and use just about every piece of software mentioned in this article. You might want to consider installing both office suites to allow your users a choice. Personally, we like having choices. If you've read this far, the same may apply to you.

Additional Reading/Extra Credit Vendor Lock In, Anti-Microsoft, and Pro-Open Source Open Office 2.0 Kicks MS Office Around the Block Why and When Open-Source Products Best Microsoft Review Checks Microsoft License $quot;Lock In$quot; Risk for Schools Wikipedia: OpenDocument, Public Policy Implications Critiques of Open Source and If This Suite's a Success, Why Is It So Buggy? Fundamental Issues with Open-Source Software Development Why Free Software Usability Tends to Suck Why Free Software Usability Tends to Suck Even More Interesting Open-Source, PC-Based Alternatives to Microsoft Office 2003 and 2.0 Databases: MySQL (and Query Browser) and PostgreSQL (and pgAdmin) Spreadsheet: Gnumeric Calendar: Chandler Presentation: S5 Drawing/Diagramming: Inkscape Publishing: Scribus Word Processing: AbiWord Interesting Free, Web-Based Alternatives to Microsoft Office 2003 and 2.0.2 Office Suite: ThinkFree Spreadsheet: iRows, Numbler (Beta), and NumSum (Alpha) Email: Gmail (by invitation only) Calendar: Airset, CalendarHub, Planzo (Beta), and a dozen or so others Drawing/Diagramming: Gliffy (invitation-only Beta) To-Do Lists: Voo2do, Remember The Milk (Beta), and Ta Da Lists Word Processing: Writely (Beta) How helpful was this article? Please take a moment to answer four brief questions and help us ensure that TechSoup articles are as useful as possible for nonprofits like yours.

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About the Authors: Brett Bonfield recently earned his MS in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, Philadelphia, and is currently dividing his work time between Temple University's Samuel L. Paley Library, and Saint Joseph University’s Francis A. Drexel Library. He was previously Director of Fundraising and Communications for NPower Pennsylvania.

Laura S. Quinn is Founder and Director of Idealware.

Copyright © 2006 Idealware. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

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