excelbasicsIf you’ve been around the internet for any length of time, you’re aware that Microsoft office has an open-source competitor called OpenOffice. It’s been out for a while, and it’s actually an interesting program.

At their basest level, the two programs appear the same.  Instead of Word, there’s OpenOffice Writer, but both of them edit and create .doc files.  Instead of Powerpoint, there’s Impress, instead of Excel, there’s Calc. The idea behind OpenOffice is to create a free, downloadable version of Microsoft Office that performs all of the functions MS Office does.

This is an attractive idea for many business people. After all, MS Office can start to get very pricey when it’s being installed on five or six machines, let alone ten or twenty. If the software performs the same functions, goes the thought, why pay for what you can get for free?

Surface-level users of Office will notice a small change in how they generate a file. Hotkeys have different labels, and menus aren’t in the same place, so there’s a bit of a learning curve on OpenOffice. That said, all of the really basic functions of the programs are there, ready for use. If you’re just getting into using office software, then a basic class like the Getting Started with Microsoft Office 2010 Tutorial will give you tips that will be pretty much applicable to both OpenOffice and MS Office. If that’s all you need your office software to do, then OpenOffice is a wonderful tool for cost efficiency.

But here’s the thing:  Microsoft is constantly refining and updating their version of Office. As the Office 2013 New Features – Learn Now class shows us, Microsoft has been honing their office tools into robust programs, capable of  an extraordinary range of tasks that simply are not present in the basic OpenOffice software.

Take, for instance, the differences between Powerpoint and Impress.  Powerpoint allows for a range of slide types and transitions.  It has a wide variety of effects, and a wide array of templates.  OpenOffice Impress, on the other hand, has a very bare-bones layout that does not allow for a significant variety in your slide show.  A basic level user would be able to create a similar product on both programs, but someone who has really trained themselves in a Powerpoint 2013 class like this one is going to be able to put a lot more polish on their slideshow using Powerpoint than they would ever be able to using Impress.

Another example is in database software.  The aptly-named “Base” from OpenOffice just doesn’t stack up to Access.  Sure, it is a system for storage and retrieval of data. But Access is a robust analysis tool, and a user who has trained in using Access by taking even a beginner’s class like Microsoft Access 2013 Beginner’s Training is going to be able to present that data in a number of different forms, run comparisons, look for statistical issues, and just generally manipulate the data better.

And then we get to the beating heart of any office program: word processing. There are some challengers to MS Word on this stage; Word Perfect from Corel comes to mind. But nothing has dominated the market like MS Word.

Now, MS Word code tends to be bulky, which is why many authors tend to shy away from it. But OpenOffice does no better, and instead mimics the kind of code-laden document format that MS Word has. Furthermore, you are much more likely to be communicating with another person who has Word than one who has OpenOffice Writer. Translating the document from Word to OpenOffice will tend to mess up your margins, tabs, and formatting generally. Thus, if you plan to send a document electronically, using OpenOffice is a good way to make your document look terrible on someone else’s computer, because the likelihood is that said person is using Word to open your OpenOffice-generated document.

Furthermore, the auto-formatting options and review tracking/commenting functions provided by OpenOffice do not sync well with Word, and are not nearly as robust. Thus, if you are expecting someone to electronically edit your text, it is far better to send that person a document generated using MS Word, not OpenOffice Writer. A class like Learning Microsoft Word 2010 will show you all the advantages Word has to offer over OpenOffice.

Now, I’ve been harsh to OpenOffice, because it is without a doubt an inferior program. It simply lacks the versatility and power that Microsoft has put into its products. But that isn’t really the be-all or end-all of the debate. The real question is:  Is MS Office superior enough to lay out cash for?  To answer the question of whether Microsoft is worth it, you need to know what you’re using the office software for.

If what you need is simply to generate some word processing documents and print them, then OpenOffice Writer is perfectly fine for this. If you just need to throw together a quick spreadsheet, and you know how to punch in the equations you want, then OpenOffice Calc will do the job. The fact is that most of your office’s needs can be met using the free software.

Your job, when making the decision as to whether you want to purchase MS Office, is to determine if there is a function that MS Office provides that you need, and you can’t get with OpenOffice. If you need your office software to produce beautiful, professional presentations, then don’t rely on Impress; get Powerpoint. If you need your office software to handle and organize vast amounts of data, then you’d be a fool to trust Base with a task Calc can do. And if you plan on electronically sharing your word-processing documents with people outside your office, then relying on OpenOffice Writer is a good way to look a little silly.

At the end of the day, only you know what your business needs. Try OpenOffice, because it won’t cost you anything. But be prepared to go get the real deal if you need it, because, after all, you get what you pay for.

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