Office of the future?

Microsoft Office has dominated productivity software for decades, but a host of new free releases are giving users more choice than in many years.

Office software comparison chart

Compare the various office software solutions with this helpful CNET chart.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

For most everyone working in the U.S. corporate world, Microsoft Office is a must: Outlook for e-mail/calendar; Word for word processing; Excel for spreadsheets; and PowerPoint for presentations. The 2007 release has been covered extensively on CNET Reviews.

However, a recent rise in free office suites has given end users much more choice in productivity software than they've had in many years. Just two weeks ago, IBM announced a free version of Lotus Symphony. Though it's still in beta release, the freeware includes serviceable word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software, all of which support Microsoft Office file formats.

The best known Office alternative is still OpenOffice.org, which also includes word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, but it also throws a database application (Base), a vector-graphics program (Draw), and a mathematical formula tool (Math) into the mix. The open-source productivity suite is based on StarOffice, now owned by Sun Microsystems.

Curiously, Sun recently made StarOffice (listed for $69.95 on its Web site) available for free via a partnership with Google Pack.

Speaking of Google, the online giant hopes to give Microsoft a run for its office money by providing free Web-based tools that anyone with a browser can access. Google Docs & Spreadsheets is much more limited than Word and Excel, but the collaboration features are mighty attractive. Also, online software such as Zoho Virtual Office is even more advanced than Google's offering.

For a comparison of alternative office software, be sure to check out Elsa Wenzel's recent roundup of competitors to Microsoft Office.

What do you think? Do you still rely on your trusty Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications, or have you moved on to an alternative. How many of you have tried online word processors or spreadsheets? Tell me about it in the comments.

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