Ask most people to name a productivity suite and chances are they’ll say Microsoft Office, but they might also name one of the numerous competitors that have sprung up. None have completely displaced the Microsoft monolith, but they’ve made inroads.

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Most of the competition has positioned itself as being better by being cheaper. SoftMaker Office has demonstrated you don’t always need to pay Microsoft’s prices to get some of the same quality, while OpenOffice.org proved you might not need to pay anything at all. Meanwhile, services like Google Docs are available for anyone with an Internet connection.

Microsoft’s response has been to issue the newest version of Office (2010) in three retail editions with slightly less ornery pricing than before, as well as a free, ad-supported version (Microsoft Office Starter Edition) that comes preloaded on new PCs. Despite the budget-friendly competition, Office continues to sell, with Microsoft claiming back in January that one copy of Office 2010 is sold somewhere in the world every second. (Full disclosure: The author of this review recently bought a copy for his own use.)

How well do the alternatives shape up? And how practical is it to switch to them when you have an existing array of documents created in Microsoft Office? Those are the questions I had in mind when I sat down with both the new version of Microsoft Office and several other programs (and one cloud service) that have been positioned as low- or no-cost replacements.

Microsoft Office 2010
Despite all efforts to dethrone it, Microsoft Office remains the de facto standard for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and to a high degree, corporate email. Other programs may have individual features that are better implemented, but Microsoft has made the whole package work together, both across the different programs in the suite and in Windows itself, with increasing care and attention in each revision.

If you avoided Office 2007 because of the radical changes to the interface — namely, the ribbon that replaced the conventional icon toolbars — three years’ time might change your mind. First, the ribbon’s no longer confined to Office only; it shows up in many other programs and isn’t as alien as before. Second, Microsoft addressed one major complaint about the ribbon — that it wasn’t customizable — and made it possible in Office 2010 for end-users to organize the ribbon as freely as they did their legacy toolbars. I’m irked Microsoft didn’t make this possible with the ribbon from the start, but at least it’s there now.

Finally, the ribbon is now implemented consistently in Office 2010. Whereas Outlook 2007 displayed the ribbon only when editing messages, Outlook 2010 uses the ribbon throughout. (The rest of Outlook has also been streamlined a great deal; the thicket of settings and submenus has been pruned down a bit and made easier to traverse.) One feature that would be hugely useful is a type-to-find function for the ribbon; there is an add-in that accomplishes this, but having it as a native feature would be great.

Aside from the interface changes, Office 2007’s other biggest alteration was a new XML-based document format. Office 2010 keeps the new format but expands backward- and cross-compatibility, as well as native handling of OpenDocument Format (ODF) documents — the .odt, .ods, and .odp formats used by OpenOffice.org. When you open a legacy Word .doc or .rtf file, for instance, the legend “[Compatibility Mode]” appears in the window title. This means any functions not native to that document format are disabled, so edits to the document can be reopened without problems in earlier versions of Office.

Note that ODF documents don’t trigger compatibility mode, since Office 2010 claims to have a high degree of compatibility between the two. The problem is “high degree” doesn’t always mean perfect compatibility. If you highlight a passage in an ODF document while in Word 2010, OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice recognize the highlighting. But if you highlight in OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice, Word 2010 interprets the highlighting as merely a background color assignment for the selected text.

Exporting to HTML is, sadly, still messy; Word has never been good at exporting simple HTML that preserves only basic markup. Also, exporting to PDF is available natively, but the range of options in Word’s PDF export module is very narrow compared to that of OpenOffice.org.

Many other little changes throughout Office 2010 ease daily work. I particularly like the way the “find” function works in Word now, where all the results in a given document are shown in a navigation pane. This makes it far easier to find that one occurrence of a phrase you’re looking for. Excel has some nifty new ways to represent and manipulate data: Sparklines, little in-cell charts that usefully display at-a-glance visualizations of data; and data slicers, multiple-choice selectors that help widen or narrow the scope of the data you’re looking at. PowerPoint lets you broadcast a presentation across the Web (via Microsoft’s PowerPoint Broadcast Service, the use of which comes free with a PowerPoint license) or save a presentation as a video.

One last feature is worth mentioning as a possible future direction for all products in this vein. Office users who also have a SharePoint server can now collaborate in real time on Word, PowerPoint, or Excel documents. Unfortunately, SharePoint is way out of the reach of most casual users. But given how many professional-level features in software generally have percolated down to the end-user level, I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft eventually adds real-time collaboration, perhaps through Windows Live Mesh, as a standard feature.

Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: OpenOffice.org 3.3.0
OpenOffice.org has long been a commonly suggested replacement for Microsoft Office. It offers several common office-suite features at a much lower price — free — than Microsoft Office itself, although many of those individual features don’t have the level of polish or advancement found in commercial office-suite products. That said, for people who don’t need the absolute latest and greatest functionality in every category, OpenOffice.org is a solid piece of software. (In the interest of full disclosure, again, I admit I have been frustrated by its limitations, but I can recognize that for many other people it will more than do the job.)

Don’t be thrown off if you come to OpenOffice.org from the Microsoft Office side. The program’s UI is very vintage 2003 — dockable toolbars instead of the newer ribbon/tab metaphors that are now all the rage. That said, future versions of OpenOffice.org may sport a more modern look, although this is still very much under wraps — nothing more than mock-up designs of such a UI have surfaced yet.