Education International
Education International

Word processing doesn’t need to be expensive to be effective

published 4 September 2008 updated 4 September 2008

When it comes to office suites – traditionally including word processing, spreadsheets, databases and the creation of presentations – most people automatically think of Microsoft Office. Indeed, Microsoft’s product dominates the market, but it also is rather pricey. Especially for unions in developing countries, often having only limited resources at their command, the high license costs may pose prohibitive obstacles. These costs are also something to bear in mind by unions active in development cooperation: When providing partners in developing countries with computers, it is recommended to use software that costs less in deployment, and more importantly, whose subsequent updates will not be a burden on those unions’ budgets. Fortunately, there are alternatives that offer the same functions as Office, but at a much lower price or even for free.

The most sophisticated of these alternative office suites is OpenOffice. It is an open source application and therefore free to install and use. While largely maintained by a community of volunteers, OpenOffice is also subsidized by Sun Microsystems. In fact, Sun’s own office suite, StarOffice, is based on the OpenOffice source code, with some additional proprietary components. StarOffice, while not entirely free of charge, is much cheaper than Microsoft Office. It also uses a more generous licensing model that allows a user to install up to five copies of the software in any of the supported languages and on any of the supported operating systems. OpenOffice – to return to software that is entirely open source – aims to compete with Microsoft Office, and therefore emulates the look and feel of its menus and button bars, sometimes improving their practicality and usability. This means that it is almost painless for users accustomed to Microsoft Office to switch to OpenOffice, and surprisingly enough, those users may often find workflow and functionality easier to handle, too. Besides, the included help files are very complete and provide solutions to virtually any kind of problems users might encounter. Like the programme itself, these help files are available in more than 90 languages and localizations, including Arabic, Chinese or some African languages. OpenOffice can read and write most of the file formats found in Microsoft Office – even, via a plug-in, the new file format created by Microsoft for Office 2007 that older versions of Office cannot read. It also offers the possibility to save files in formats originally used by many other applications, a fact that many users see as an essential feature of the suite. For example, it is possible to export PDF files by the click of a button – without needing to have Adobe’s Acrobat software installed. Apart from that, OpenOffice runs on a large number of operating systems, be it Microsoft Windows, Mac OSX (for which a specially-adapted development fork called NeoOffice exists), different Linux, UNIX or BSD distributions or even IBM’s OS/2. This makes it the office suite of choice when working in a cross-platform environment, e.g. a computer lab in a school or a union’s office utilising Linux-based computers. For those already working with Linux systems, the KOffice suite, integrated into the K Desktop Environment (KDE), can also be a viable alternative. Its word processor might not be as advanced as OpenOffice’s, but it is also open source. Apart from traditional word processing and spreadsheets it includes flow chart, vector graphics and planning tools, making it a very complete and extensive choice. If you have reliable internet access, Google Docs could also be useful – especially if working remotely in a team. A free, web-based word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation application, Google Docs allows users to create and edit documents on-line while collaborating in real-time with other users. Documents can be created and altered within the browser-based interface itself, or they can be imported. They can also be downloaded to the users’ computers in a variety of formats. Moreover, documents can be tagged and archived to keep them organised and easily accessible. To conclude: Don’t be afraid to test alternatives to Microsoft Office. You won’t be sacrificing functionality – quite the contrary. And these programmes can indeed help to cut costs or even make deployment possible. Moreover, using them is an easy and effective way to introduce alternatives and choices to students in the classroom – a worthwhile goal in itself. By Timo Linsenmaier

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 27, September 2008.