Thinking About Free Office

Thinking About Free Office

While I use and recommend Office 365 and the full desktop versions of Office it provides, these powerful paid solutions aren’t for everyone. So this month, I’ve been looking anew at the free alternatives to Office 365 and Office. As many of you know, there are a lot of options. And they just keep getting better.

I don’t write about this very much, but truth is, I spend a lot of time doing this kind of evaluation. I’ll see a mention about an update to some semi-obscure Office alternative like WPS Office or LibreOffice and kneejerk install it just to see what’s new. I’ve never been happy with any Office alternatives personally—and that’s true of cloud solutions like Google Docs, traditional Windows applications like the two mentioned above, Mac-specific apps like iWork/iPages, or whatever. But that’s particular to me, I think.

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For me, Microsoft Office falls into a unique category for a number of reasons. I’m a professional writer, so I feel like I need the latest version of Word, in particular, though one could accurately counter that even I only use a tiny percentage of its capabilities. And I write about Microsoft for the most part, so Office is of course inherently of interest, and something I should be familiar with.

But that’s not really it. I really do regularly evaluate alternatives, and while this is sort of vague and squishy, the reason I’ve never switched—the real reason—is that they’re not Microsoft Office. There’s just something familiar and right about Office. It’s hard to describe, but if you consider my reaction to Office 2011 for Mac (which is “Office” but is also dreadful) or even the admittedly picky style differences I see in the Office 2016 preview, you can kind of see where this is headed.

But I’m not everyone, and my own strange needs and wants aren’t universal. I was surprised recently when a fellow tech writer claimed that the hardest thing he did when reviewing products was put himself in the position of more typical users. I don’t have a problem doing that at all. In fact, it’s a big piece of what I do. It’s just that with Office, I have a block. I really do live in Office, and in particular in Word. I use it all day long.

So I’m trying here. 🙂 Bear with me.

When it comes to office productivity solutions, we are drowning in choices, many of which are free, and some of which are even from Microsoft. Indeed, Microsoft’s current strategy for Office is centered on offering its most-used functionality for free and then upselling companies—and when possible, individuals—to subscription services when possible. This is the freemium model, which is common in mobile games these days, but applied to one of Microsoft’s biggest businesses.

The only thing Microsoft doesn’t give away free in some capacity right now is full Office for Windows and Mac, though one might make the argument that the free year-long subscription to Office 365 Personal that accompanies many new Windows PC and devices purchases these days straddles that line nicely. (Office 365 Personal includes one install of full Office for one user.) That said, the full version of one Office application, OneNote, is available for one and all, including on Windows and Mac.

Microsoft also offers very powerful and useful Office apps for free on mobile platforms, including iPad, iPhone, and Android handsets and tablets. And a similar set of universal apps for Windows 10 PCs and devices (including phones) will ship alongside that OS later this year too.

Microsoft also provides free web-based apps—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—via Office Online. Like the mobile Office apps, Office Online isn’t “full” Office, but it’s almost certainly powerful enough for most users, and it very closely approximates the desktop Office experience inside a web browser. The web availability means Office Online works virtually everywhere, including Chrome OS (Chromebooks) and even Linux. But it lacks offline capabilities, which is technically possible and would mark an incredible change if it ever happens.

Of course, you may want a fully installable, offline-capable office productivity suite … for free. And those options of course exist. I mentioned LibreOffice, which is free, full-featured (it comes with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing applications, plus advanced PDF, charting and formula capabilities, and it works across platforms on  Windows, Mac and Linux. WPS Office is a slightly more controversial offering because it’s not actually free anymore but it works on Windows and Linux (and Android and iOS). (It used to be called Kingsoft Office.) And if you’re an Apple user, you of course get iWork (with iPads, Numbers and Keynote) for free when you get a new Mac.

There are various office productivity solutions in the cloud, but the only one with any traction—indeed, this was the number one Office alternative cited when I asked about this topic on Twitter—is Google Docs, which is really separate services like Google Docs (word processing), Sheets (spreadsheets) and Slides (presentations). The consensus seems to be that Google Docs is solid—we use it at Petri—with excellent real time collaboration functionality. And the ability to use Google Docs offline makes it a more desirable choice on PCs, Macs and Chromebooks alike. And there are mobile apps on iOS and Android, of course.

The only thing I don’t like about Google Docs is that it can only work with Google Drive storage. I would consider this option if they opened it up to Dropbox or, better still, OneDrive. (There are third party solutions to sync Google Docs/Drive with Dropbox.)

So I’m willing to experiment here, and dig deeper. But as I asked on Twitter, I’m curious which free office productivity solutions you use, and why. If you do use such a thing, please let me know

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