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Think OpenOffice.org Instead Of Microsoft Office, Save Yourself Hundreds Of Dollars

In my transition from Windows to the Mac, I faced a real quandry with regard to Microsoft Office. I don't spend much time working in an office suite. I don't want to spend $300 for software I'm not spending much time with. But when I need an office suite, I need it badly, and I need it to be Microsoft Office-compatible. I don't want to mess around with an open-source alternative that might let me down when I need it most.

In my transition from Windows to the Mac, I faced a real quandry with regard to Microsoft Office. I don't spend much time working in an office suite. I don't want to spend $300 for software I'm not spending much time with. But when I need an office suite, I need it badly, and I need it to be Microsoft Office-compatible. I don't want to mess around with an open-source alternative that might let me down when I need it most.

My solution: Use the free, open source, NeoOffice port of OpenOffice.org for the Mac, and worry about whether to pay for Office if it turns out I need Office. I've been following that strategy for three months now; and so far I'm not missing Office.

I expect there's a few people like me out there. Because I write mainly for the Web, my job is to crank out plain text, formatted lightly, with only a few HTML tags. So the application I live in every day is a free or cheap text editor, like Windows Notepad but with one or two more features. I use the free TextWrangler on the Mac, and $29.95 Notetab Pro on Windows.

My employers provide me, and my colleagues, with Microsoft Office. But it's Office on Windows. I bought an iMac for personal use in February, and decided I liked it so much I'd use it for work too. My company doesn't object -- but they won't support me either. They've supplied me with Office on Windows, and if I want something else, I'm on my own.

I only need to use an office suite every once in a while -- but when I do need it, I really, really need it. And I need it to be Microsoft Office compatible. I have people I work with, including my managers, who occasionally send me Office documents that I need to read, and I do not want to annoy them by saying, gosh, I'm sorry, I can't read that document because I'm not using the corporate-standard Microsoft Office. I try to avoid unnecessarily annoying the people who decide how much I get paid.

And yet. And yet. I don't want to pay $300 for an Office license to cover something that might come up every few months.

I wrote about this Catch-22 in February, soon after I got the Mac. When last I wrote about this, I decided to bite the bullet and buy a Microsoft Office license for the iMac. I decided I'd use NeoOffice, the open source office suite, until I had a chance to buy Microsoft Office and install it.

But I didn't have time to buy and install Microsoft Office then, and the days stretched out into weeks, and the weeks stretched into months, and I still hadn't bought and installed Microsoft Office. Then I noticed something: I wasn't running into any problems. I was able to create and edit Microsoft Office documents in NeoOffice without any problems, and share those documents with my Microsoft-using colleagues.

And so I decided to continue to procrastinate on buying Office, continue to postpone shelling out the money. I'll buy a Microsoft Office license if I need it. But so far I haven't needed it.

Procrastination has worked out well for me in life. In 1984, for example, I decided to postpone getting a real job and go into journalism; 23 years later, the other shoe still hasn't dropped on that one.

By the way, note that I do still have three copies of Microsoft Office in the house -- one on the company-issued Windows laptop, one on an old Windowsw laptop I bought in 2002 when I was self-employed, and a third on my wife's Windows PC. If NeoOffice completely blows up on me, relief is just a short way away. But I rarely use Microsoft Office -- I use Word once a month or so, and that's it. And it's not really necessary even then.

How did I use Microsoft Office, and how do I use NeoOffice?

Writing fiction. I write science fiction on the side, and send it out to editors so they can reject it. Science-fiction editors mostly still want hardcopy submissions, formatted in a particular way: Courier font, double-spaced on one side of the page, one-inch margins, headers including page numbers on top of every page but the front page, contact info on the front page. Even most of the science-fiction editors who take electronic submissions want manuscripts formatted the same way, in Microsoft Word or RTF format.

I spend about a half-hour to an hour every day writing fiction. I used to do it in Microsoft Word, now I do it in NeoOffice.

It works great. Manuscript formatting was kind of tricky -- I spent about an hour the other day fighting with the headers in NeoOffice's Write, which are done completely differently from the way they're done in Word. I eventually figured it out, after setting the furniture and curtains on fire with the power of my white-hot swearing. If I were smart, I'd write it all down so I don't have to go through all that again, but I'm not that smart.

Sometime soon, I plan to try out CopyWrite, a $29.99 word processor designed specifically for writers. I friend wrote at least one novel in CopyWrite, and she swears by it. I may also try the $34.99 Scrivener. The vendors describe both products as "project managers for writers."

Tracking personal expenses. I put 'em in a spreadsheet. Sometimes I add 'em up. That's about it.

Reading the occasional PowerPoint. Once in the past three months, a vendor sent me a PowerPoint presentation to go with an interview I was doing for an article. OpenOffice.org opened it up great, without any problems.

Carol Pinchefsky reviewed NeoOffice for us recently. She delved deep into the feature set and found it to be "a great substitute for Microsoft Office. In fact, in some ways, it improves on the original." If you're a power-user of Microsoft Office, you're probably still worried about switching to NeoOffice, and I don't blame you. But if you're just a lightweight Office user, like me, give NeoOffice for the Mac, or OpenOffice.org on other platforms, a try.

Editor's Choice
Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer