Suite as a nut?

Why is Microsoft Office 2003 back on the PC Pro A List? The previous incumbent, OpenOffice, is a competent office suite as far as it goes and it’s undeniably value for money, given that it’s free. But, is it the best, particularly for SMEs where total cost of ownership is more important than purchase price?

Suite as a nut?

OpenOffice is the only serious competition for Microsoft Office. All the other contenders, apart from Ability Office 4, are either hopelessly out of date or aimed at first-time home users. Ability Office 4 looks okay until you look at compatibility issues, particularly in its spreadsheet offering. So let’s look at the arguments that persuaded the Editor to put Microsoft Office back on the PC Pro A List.

Even if we ignore Microsoft Office’s Document Imaging, Document Scanning and Picture Manager applications and count in OpenOffice’s Drawing module, that still leaves some glaring gaps in OpenOffice’s offering, most significant of which is the lack of any email/PIM function. OpenOffice doesn’t come with any module equivalent to Outlook – no email, no contacts, no calendar, no task list. Outlook is a huge part of Microsoft Office’s usefulness, which OpenOffice makes no attempt to replicate. The FAQ at the website asks: ‘Does OpenOffice come with an equivalent of Outlook?’ Before answering: ‘No, it does not. However, if you have paid for Microsoft Exchange licences, please check as this licence cost may also be for Microsoft Outlook.

‘However, I would not recommend either Outlook or Outlook Express in any case as they are very open to email viruses. This is because these tools are by default on almost every Microsoft Windows PC and are used by most people, and they both have almost the same weaknesses making it very “profitable” for virus writers.’

It’s true that viruses have, in the past, relied on Outlook to replicate themselves, but Microsoft has made great efforts to secure the program – virus writers now find it very difficult to access Outlook address books or to send copies via Outlook’s email engine without the user noticing. Most current malware threats now come complete with their own mailing module that can read addresses from many different sources, not just Outlook. This makes Outlook 2003 nowhere near as vulnerable to viruses as this FAQ would suggest, and other mail clients are just as vulnerable even if they don’t include an automation language like the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) built intoOutlook.

If you’re looking for cost savings by using OpenOffice, you’re going to have to buy another email/PIM client to get equivalent functionality. Do you try to find a free application or one that you have to pay for? There are free email clients and PIMs about but they won’t integrate into OpenOffice as well as Outlook does into Office 2003. Will you, for instance, be able to mail-merge form letters from your free PIM’s address book, either to printed letters or to email? If you end up buying another email client/PIM you’re eating into the savings you’d get by not buying Microsoft Office.

It’s true that if you have licences for Exchange Server, you automatically have licences for Outlook, but, although OpenOffice can use Outlook’s contact data, Outlook won’t integrate nicely with OpenOffice. Some Outlook menu items such as Action | New Letter to Contact or Tools | Mailmerge…, won’t work unless you have the rest of Microsoft Office, which could cause support issues when your users discover menu items that don’t work or generate error messages.

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