Do I need Microsoft Office?

There was a time when you had to pony up the high cost of the Microsoft Office suite in order to effectively exchange documents with others. But over the past several years Office has received lots of very appealing competition. In response, Microsoft reduced the price of Microsoft Office, but for many, the price is still a little steep. Before you spend the money on Microsoft office take a look at these other options. Even without considering the lower cost you may find that some of these fit your needs better. But in the end, if Microsoft Office works better for you you can buy or subscribe to Microsoft Office here.

Here are some of the most popular alternative options available on the Mac. Apple iWork, Google Docs, and LibreOffice. Each one has their own advantages and disadvantages, so there is no one product that will work best for everyone. I myself use all of them depending on who I’m working with or the type of document I’m creating.

iWork

$19.99 per Mac app ($9.99 on iOS), or free with a new Mac or iOS device (the first user to log into the App Store on a new device gets the license added to their account) iWork is now free

Though I almost never see the name “iWork” anymore since Apple de-bundled the components, iWork is Apple’s very own competitor which is comprised of:

  • Pages (word processor) Mac / iOS
  • Numbers (spreadsheet) Mac / iOS
  • Keynote (presentation) Mac / iOS

Idiosyncrasies. As you might suspect from an Apple product, these apps produce some of the most beautiful output with the least effort, since their templates are extremely high quality. Though their focus on CSS-like “Styles” can confuse people who simply want to highlight some text and change a font face or text size. Styles allow you to easily maintain consistency. Want your chapter headers to all be two points larger? Instead of going through each header manually you can just change the format of the “Header” style. Other word processors use this feature as well, but Apple makes it more prominent. So it’s common for people to use this quite complex (though efficient) formatting option and get in over their heads.

Collaboration. The major drawback is for those who regularly collaborate with non-Apple users. Each of these apps saves to their own proprietary format. Each time you want to send a file to a Microsoft Office user you must remember to export it to Word, PDF, etc., and email that output. In macOS Sierra, they added a collaboration feature that works similarly to Google Docs, though unless your collaborator is familiar you may meet some resistance from people you share to.

Privacy. The easiest way to keep your documents available on all of your Macs and iOS devices is to save your documents to iCloud. Apple doesn’t mine your data as you are a paying customer, and they use a very high level of encryption, but if it still doesn’t sit well with you you are able to save the documents to your own computer instead. Even if you do decide to save to iCloud Drive, your computer keeps a local copy for offline use as long as you have available storage, and these local copies also get backed up to Time Machine.

Mobile. Mobile versions of the app are available individually for $9.99, or free with a new iOS device. This allows you to edit any documents which you saved to your iCloud Drive folder. As an added bonus, the Keynote app on iOS can serve as a remote control to a presentation on another iOS device or Mac. You can even use Apple Watch to control the slideshow.

Good for people who:

  • need to create documents for themselves only
  • collaborate with other Apple iWork users
  • want to share their final product with others

Bad for people who:

  • Regularly exchange and edit documents with people who do not use iWork

Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides

Free

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Google runs one of the most popular alternatives to Microsoft Office. But their vision, as they are a cloud company, is that instead of installing software on your computer you visit a website and edit your documents in your web browser. It doesn’t have advanced formatting functions, but for most users it is good enough. It includes

Collaboration. It really shines in collaboration features. You can invite other users to collaborate using a link, and as other users are editing and commenting, you see their changes in real time. And you can simultaneously edit, with each user getting their own cursor. This is a dream for people who work with editors, because without emailing multiple attachments, everyone is always sure to be using the current version, and one person can jump in and make changes without having to worry about the other person finishing their edits first. This is really handy with Sheets, allowing multiple users to compile data into a single spreadsheet.

Mobile. The Google Mobile apps allow you to log into your Google account to view, edit, and share all of your documents.

Idiosyncracies. One thing that throws a lot of people is that there is no “Save” button. Instead, you are editing the document live. Much like a real pen and paper, you don’t save, you just create. If you want to to go back, you can browse revisions which are saved automatically. So you are able to see who made what changes when, and roll them back if needed.

Privacy. Though the product is technically free, there is a cost. As we all know Google’s major source of income is through data mining and advertising. The documents that you create are part of your user profile that Google uses to sell you products. Now, that doesn’t mean that someone at Google is necessarily reading through your documents, but they get fed into an algorithm so that Google understands you. This is less of a concern for G Suite users (paying customers using Google on their own domain), because they have a much different user agreement, and can even sign up for HIPAA compliance.

No lock-in. Once you start editing documents in Google’s system you’ll likely always want to keep them there for convenience. However, you can download any document in Microsoft format, or you can export all of your Google data at Google Takeout.

Good for people who:

  • Collaborate with people on many different platforms
  • Want easy access to their documents on the go

Bad for people who:

  • Have privacy concerns (if using a free Google account)
  • Need sophisticated formatting options
  • Need to keep local copies of documents

LibreOffice

Free. libreoffice.org

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LibreOffice is a fork of the OpenOffice project and is preferred to its ancestor by many. It is essentially an Office 2000 clone, so many people find it to be much easier to use than the current versions of Microsoft Office with the “ribbon” bars. But it’s quite a full-featured program that most people will find sufficient.

File format. While LibreOffice has their own (open) file format, with a few tweaks you can change the default format to be Microsoft Office for maximum compatibility:

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  1. With LibreOffice open go to the LibreOffice menu > Preferences  > Load/Save > General.
  2. Near the bottom make sure “Document Type” is set to “Text Document”
  3. Change “Always Save As” to “Microsoft Word 2007-2013 XML”
  4. Change “Document Type” to “Spreadsheet”
  5. Change “Always Save As” to “Microsoft Excel 2007-2013 XML”
  6. Change “Document Type to “Presentation”
  7. Change “Always Save As” to “Microsoft PowerPoint 2007-2013 XML”
  8. Click OK.

Collaboration. What it doesn’t have a lot of are cloud and collaboration features. In order to collaborate you create your files, email them to someone. They edit the file and email it back. Very 1999. But if that’s the workflow that works for you then you’ll have no complaints. They recently announced the development of LibreOffice Online, a new project that is similar to Google Docs, where you have real-time collaboration through a web browser. But instead of going to a public website, they are offering the software that you must install onto your own server. This will be great for people and organizations who like the idea of Google’s suite but don’t want their data in someone else’s hands.

Near universal compatibility. This program has some surprising power for people who have ancient documents. It is even able to open documents from WordPerfect, StarOffice, ClarisWorks, AppleWorks, Microsoft Works, Lotus, and much more. You can then “save as” a more modern format.

Good for people who:

  • have been using Microsoft Office since the 90s and don’t want to change their workflow.
  • are concerned with privacy and don’t want their documents stored on a server

Bad for people who:

  • need easy access to their documents on mobile
  • are in need of a more efficient collaboration workflow