It was my fault--I admit it. I was cleaning my computer's file system, trying to speed it up a bit, when poof! My computer died. I was able to bring it back to life, but I lost a lot of programs I had to reinstall. Unfortunately, at some point during a move six months earlier, I had lost my Microsoft Office disk and now was in a bit of a jam: I was working on a project for a client, the deadline was coming up quickly, and it was too late to go to the store to buy another copy.

That's when I turned to Google. On a hunch, I searched for "Alternatives to Microsoft Office" and there I found OpenOffice.org. A quick read of OpenOffice's website revealed a program that's intended to be similar to Microsoft Office in look and feel, and that can read and save files in the Microsoft Office format, among others.

Here's the kicker: OpenOffice is free. Regardless of how many workstations you use the program on, it'll never cost your company a penny. Compare that to the cost of licensing Microsoft Office Professional for just five workstations: According to a sales associate at the online retailer CDW, that'll cost you upwards of $2,000.

Being convinced--and desparate--enough to give it a try, I went through the download and install procedures, which took only a few minutes using my cable modem. I was very pleased with what I found. There's a "Word"-like program, called Write, for drafting documents. There's also a spreadsheet program, called Calc, that's very similar to Excel and a presentation program called Impress that's similar to PowerPoint. There's also a program called Draw, which is comparable to Paint.

After I became more familiar with OpenOffice, I discovered many useful features that other business owners will appreciate:

  • Write is the OpenOffice equivalent of Word. It's highly functional, very intuitive and has utilities for saving documents directly to PDF format, which allows for easy web publishing or portability between platforms, something Word doesn't offer. Mail merge, table maker, object manipulation, various wizards and the ability to create your own templates are also available in Write.
  • Calc is similar in almost every way to Excel, but Calc files, unlike Excel files, can be saved directly to PDF, thus saving you the time and expense of having to use a separate program--Adobe--to turn the text document into a PDF.
  • Impress presentations can be saved directly as a Macromedia Flash file, for easy uploading to your company's website. In PowerPoint, this can only be done by using a separate and expensive program for converting PowerPoint documents to Macromedia Flash format.
  • OpenOffice 1.2 also has a database function built in. This can be used to create bibliographies, contact lists, address books and other functions you'd expect from a relational database.

Though it's easy to learn how to use the programs--and easy on any company's budget--OpenOffice does have some drawbacks:

  • The database program in version 1.2 is extremely difficult to learn. I also came across compatibility issues with some of my Windows software that wouldn't allow for the creation of databases through OpenOffice. There's an Access-like database for OpenOffice 2.0, called Base; however, it's still in Beta version, so some functions don't work. And at this point, Base doesn't have an "import" function, which many Access users find useful.
  • If you don't remember to save your Write files in a .doc format, or PDF, then non-OpenOffice users who you send your files to won't be able to read them.
  • Lastly, since OpenOffice was created as a group effort and built by volunteers, its how-tos and help files are sometimes difficult to find and understand.

Overall, OpenOffice provides users with a versatile office suite. Many small-business owners will find that the office suite is a gateway to the larger world of open source software. For instance, when you find that OpenOffice doesn't offer an Outlook-like e-mail service, you might soon discover Mozilla Thunderbird, another open source program that looks and acts very much like Outlook. Soon you may begin wondering why so many thousands of your business's hard-earned dollars went to software suites, when similar software is available for free on the internet.

Donald Carroll is the founder of Calvary Copywriting in Kansas City, Missouri. Specializing in the peculiarities of small to mid-sized businesses, Donald takes pride in helping the little guys fight big competition.