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Who needs Microsoft Office? Freeware puts twists on old apps

Free programs such as the Jarte word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet have features their Office equivalents lack.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

Most people become so accustomed to using Microsoft Office that they never consider its alternatives. But there are more than one way to process words and spreadsheets: Word and Excel aren't the only games in town.

In fact, it's getting easier and easier to do without the most popular Office applications. Other than Outlook--which my company uses--I haven't opened a Microsoft Office app since last February, when my HP laptop died prematurely.

In fact, it wasn't easy removing the trial version of Office Enterprise 2007 that was preinstalled on the Sony Vaio that replaced the piece-of-crap HP that died. I've been working just fine using the free Jarte word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet.

Plenty of free Office alternatives
For several years, I've relied on the free, open-source OpenOffice.org suite and free, not-so-open-source Google Docs online services as my part-time Office surrogates. But OpenOffice.org's Writer and Calc apps are slow, and Google's online word processor and spreadsheet are missing some important formatting features.

Of course, OpenOffice.org and Google Docs have some nice features that Office lacks. Microsoft neither offers anything like Portable OpenOffice.org that lets you run the suite's programs from a USB thumbdrive you can take with you from system to system. Nor is it easy for Office to match the ubiquity of the documents you store on Google Docs, which are never more than an Internet connection and Web browser away (even closer with the Google Gears offline component).

Your Office alternatives aren't limited to those two products--far from it. Among the leading candidates for Office stand-in are IBM's Lotus Symphony, OxygenOffice, and Go-oo. What's the difference? You'll find a nice discussion of free office software at Tech Support Alert.

Not the same-old interface
How did word processors, spreadsheets, databases, graphics software, and other disparate apps ever get tied together in the first place? I'm sure there was a good reason, but I can't seem to remember it right now. I rediscovered the joys of standalone apps earlier this year when I started using the Jarte word processor and Gnumeric open-source spreadsheet program.

The Jarte interface in particular was a revelation: it just makes sense. The program is based on Windows' built-in WordPad program, but frankly, I don't see any resemblance. Start with Jarte's browser-like tabs, then check out the dashboard controls for managing files, formatting documents, manipulating content, and accessing references.

Two of my favorite Jarte features are the instant word and character counts, which appear when you hover over the Document Counts icon, and the smart clipboard that lets you save multiple snippets of text for later pasting. You get your choice of three interfaces, but I prefer Compact to Classic or Minimal. And then there's the world of clickless options that let you select menu items simply by hovering over them.

Jarte word processor
The free Jarte word processor lets you save and reuse multiple text snippets. Carolina Road Software

The commercial Jarte Plus version adds such features as background spell-checking, autocorrect, and "Personalities" for saving custom configurations, but as the vendor Carolina Road Software states, the Plus version is intended primarily as a way for customers to show their support for the product with their pocketbooks.

By contrast, the Gnumeric spreadsheet is part of the open-source Gnome project that's committed to providing a free desktop environment for various operating systems. I readily admit that my spreadsheet needs are limited, but it was actually easier to transition from Excel to Gnumeric than it was to switch from Word and OpenOffice.org Writer to Jarte. You may not get Excel's fancy pivot tables or charting options, but Gnumeric puts the features you're most likely to need front-and-center.

Gnumeric spreadsheet
Switching from Excel to the free Gnumeric open-source spreadsheet is nearly automatic. GnomeProject

Microsoft goes after Office scofflaws
On those rare occasions when I criticize Microsoft (ahem), I can count on some commenter taking me to task, saying something like "it was a fine article until you got all political and started bashing Microsoft." Well, I've pointedly avoided mentioning the company's recent expansion of Office Genuine Advantage. Just as Windows Genuine Advantage is one of the company's attempts to control unauthorized use of Windows, OGA is designed to ferret out illegal copies of Office.

Despite its noble goals, OGA is a hassle for many, many legitimate Office customers. You can probably keep OGA off a PC running Office, but not without some effort. And then there's Microsoft's "guilty until proven innocent" assumption. Far be it from me to tell one of the biggest companies in the world how to run its business, but appreciated I don't feel, thank you very much.