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Office productivity on a tight budget

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These days, open source office suites like Oracle Open Office are viable alternatives to Microsoft Office. They are much cheaper, they offer professional help and they even look and feel the same as Microsoft Office, writes GAVIN MOFFAT.

When it comes to office productivity, the software you use for common office tasks such as preparing presentations and composing documents is probably the last thing on your mind. But this software plays a vital role in keeping your business running smoothly.

Perhaps you’ll simply tell someone who asks you which office software you’re using that it’s Microsoft Windows, without giving it a second thought. You might think that Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office are one and the same thing, and not know that you have more than one option to choose from.

Or you might think that so-called open-source alternatives to Microsoft Office are incompatible with your existing documents, suitable only for technically minded people, or inferior to Microsoft’s product. But in reality, open-source suites such as Oracle Open Office (formerly StarOffice) and Open Office have matured into viable alternatives for many businesses.

So why is it worth considering Open Office? The single most compelling reason is that it does everything Microsoft Office does, at low or even no cost. Download it, and you can install it on as many PCs as you want to without paying a software licence fee. Which business isn’t looking for ways to save some money in these trying times?

The reason that Open Office is free (no licensing fees) is that is it is developed using an open-source model – it is computer software for which anyone can access the source code and change, develop and use as they want to.

The risks of migrating from Microsoft Office to Open Office are far lower than they used to be. With major vendors like Oracle (second largest software vendor in the world) and Novell backing open-source, you can access professional support services for your software just as you can for Microsoft Office. And Oracle provides the sort of quality control and product roadmaps for its version of Open Office that Microsoft provides for Office.

The Open Office suite has also taken enormous steps forward in matching the functionality of Microsoft Office as well as ensuring compatibility with Microsoft’s product and other office software in common use. Open Office has a similar look and feel to Microsoft Office, so most end-users learn to use it quite quickly.

And since it’s based on open standards, you’re not tied into a relationship with one vendor. You can change to a new open-source or commercial office suite knowing that your documents will be compatible with your new software.

Tablets are a relatively new arena for office productivity suites but there are already a ton out there. For the Android OS you can find a range of free products including Documents to Go, OfficeSuite, QuickOffice and Smart Office. I quite like the paid version of OfficeSuite Pro as it hooks into DropBox which is nice.

For the iPad there are literally a gazillion options like Documents Free (Mobile Office Suite), Smart Office (USD9.99), Office2 HD (USD5.99), QuickOffice Pro (USD19.99), iA Writer (USD0.99), Documents To Go (USD9.99) and of course, Apple’s Pages (USD9.99) or the full version, iWork for iPad.

Let’s not forget Google’s offering Google Docs which, when hooked up to their recently announced Drive (cloud storage and collaboration), is a very powerful play.

So this might all sound great. And it is – I’m a great believer in open-source software. But ultimately, it’s all about choosing what’s right for your business. Perhaps you’re heavily invested in Microsoft skills and aren’t ready to spend money retraining your techies.

Or if you’re working with complex documents, you might not want to risk compatibility glitches with old files or when sharing files with business partners. It’s worth investigating all these issues carefully before making a decision. Whatever you decide, it’s important to know that there is real choice in the market and that you don’t need to be tied into just one vendor.

* Follow Gavin on Twitter on @gavinmoffat

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