Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2003 / 27 Tishrei, 5764

There is new version of Office available and this one cost $0

By Phillip Robinson | (KRT) A new version of Office is now available. And there are three big changes, in file format, price, and spam filtering.

The features aren't much changed from the last version. There are some new options, sure, and some bug fixes, but overall this is the same bundle of word-processing, numbers-spreadsheeting, charts-presenting powers that most everyone with a computer needs, either every day or at least once in a while.

So is it worth upgrading from your current Office?

Well, the file format change is important. The new Office is built on the new open XML standard. (Say it one letter at a time - "Ex Em El" - not as a single syllable like "Ximmel.")

An "open" standard is one that anyone can study and use without having to sign secret contracts or pay royalties.

For example, the open HTML standard made the web possible by offering an agreed-upon format for web pages. Any word processor could open any HTML file. Any web browser program could display any HTML file on screen. That meant everyone would be using the same web and so the web could grow quickly.

Donate to JWR

It's like every telephone being able to communicate with every other telephone, not just AT&T Phone connecting to another AT&T Phone but not being able to connect calls to Motorola phones, for instance. Without a phone standard, the phone system would never have grown so large, or been so useful. It's the same with computing gear and the Internet.

XML is a newer, more-powerful standard than HTML, with a different focus. Any word processor can open an XML file, whether that file came from another word processor, a spreadsheet, or whatever. And XML files can include special codes to let programs understand how the information is meant to be formatted and used. This should make XML-based files more useful in an Internet age - because software made by anyone will be able to directly interact with the files. It will also ease the fear of losing information in proprietary files - that disaster that occurs when programmers keep making new versions of programs and eventually you discover that the latest version won't open your files from five or ten years ago.

This new Office still reads and writes the files made by previous versions. And it can save files to the older formats too, or in the new XML-based formats.

But file formats rarely get people excited, except when they're not working, that is.

The other big change in the new Office will get you excited. This new Office is free.

That's right. Free. As in Zero $.

Oh, you can pay for it if you insist. If you're not able or willing to download it for free from the website, you can pay $2 to $3 to get the new Office on CD.

Then you can install your downloaded or CD version to as many computers as you want. Use one CD to install this new Office on every desk at work, even if there's a thousand of them. Or install it on every computer in a school district, even if there are 10,000 of them. Hey, let kids take copies home so parents can install it there too. It's still free, with no licenses to worry about.

Wait a minute, what about all that "program activation" stuff that Microsoft put in Windows XP and Office XP? You know, where you need to use a serial number to install, and then Microsoft keeps a database of your installation details, and if you try to install again you might be blocked until you persuade Microsoft that you're not cheating by trying to install on a second computer?

Oh, that. Well, this new Office doesn't come from Microsoft. It's from group. And the email part that many people add to OpenOffice comes from, with its new spam-filtering tool that is better than most anything else you can find or buy. Mozilla too is completely free to download or available for a couple of bucks on CD.

OpenOffice can not only read and write its own files, it can read and write Microsoft Office files - sometimes better than the many versions of Microsoft Office read each other - and now can also export files as PDF. The Portable Document Format is popular as a way to exchange fancy-formatting word processor files on the Internet.

Yeah, Microsoft has a new Office too. Called Office 2003, it has a few significant changes from Office XP, Office 2000, and Office 97 - previous versions that many people use. First, Office 2003 uses some XML. Not from the ground up, not completely, the way OpenOffice does, but there is some XML in there, though not really "open" because Microsoft demands the right to keep secret formats that you can't look inside. Second, there are new programming "hooks" in the Office pieces that will let them collaborate through networks. Not that anyone is really set up to do that yet. Not that many people ever will be. And it will require buying more Microsoft software that works behind the scenes to establish the network cooperation. The third change in Office 2003 is in the email part, Outlook. This has been seriously improved. It isn't as good as Mozilla, and it's still vulnerable to spam and viruses and other attacks, a real magnet for them in fact. But it's no longer the absolute worst email program you could find.

What about price? Sad to say, Microsoft hasn't really changed that. Office 2003 still costs from $150 (if you claim to be a student or teacher) to $300 (if you owned a previous version and so are buying an "upgrade") to $500 (for a "professional" version that isn't an upgrade).

So if you were to install Office 2003 on a thousand computers at a school, it would cost you $150,000. Set up a 10,000-employee corporation and you're looking several million dollars, plus more for "license-monitoring-software" from another company, to make sure you don't get sued for installing more Offices than you've bought, plus more for the latest versions of Windows (only the new Windows can run Office 2003), plus the hardware to run the latest Windows. Or maybe you've already paid part of that freight because you're in a corporation that sends Microsoft money every year as part of a Software Assurance program. Then you get the upgrades automatically, and pay automatically, whether the upgrades actually have any new features you care about or not.

With OpenOffice, the upgrades are as free as the originals, and you can take them or leave them as you like.

Is there anything Microsoft Office has that OpenOffice doesn't? Other than the high price?

Yes. The Professional version of Microsoft Office has a database called Access. If you want a database with OpenOffice you can either use a free one such as MySQL or you can spend $75 to buy StarOffice. That gets you OpenOffice plus a database plus some tech support.

Is there anything OpenOffice has, other than the full XML, lower price (is it fair to call "0" just "lower"?), and far-better email (when teamed with Mozilla)? Yes, there's a drawing program in OpenOffice for making logos and sketches and other art.

My advice? I guess it's pretty obvious that I think OpenOffice+Mozilla is a much better idea for most everyone. But there are people who should consider Office 2003. If you have a huge number of Office "macros" (recorded programs to run automatically on Office), then switching to OpenOffice would take some time and expense re-creating those macros. And if you're forced by a corporation to use some form of Office, and haven't upgraded since Office 97, then 2003 might be a worthwhile move. Remember, though, it only runs on the latest version of Windows. OpenOffice runs on most any version of Windows, plus Mac OSX, Linux, Solaris, and other places.

Appreciate this type of reporting? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

Phillip Robinson is founder of the Internet service Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services