One tool that no computer should be without is the one we typically
call an “Office suite” – a collection of programs to manipulate words,
numbers, and data so that we can present that information to other
people. Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, Powerpoint, and Outlook are the
gold standard for this. For years, companies spent hundreds of dollars
for each copy – and frankly, many pirated copies – because they were
the de-facto standard if you wanted to send files to someone else and
have them be understood.
Office has withstood the onslought of Adobe’s PDF standard, because
you cannot easily edit spreadsheets and text documents once they are
PDF files. Despite the foothold in the law community, Wordperfect is
effectively an also-ran.
Yet, there are alternatives. On the Mac side, there is Apple’s iWork
suite and the OpenOffice – based NeoOffice. For mac, Linux, and Windows, Open Office and Libre Offic all try to capture the
breadth of features and feel of Microsofts 800-lb gorilla. For most
people, they succeed admirably, and given how well most convert
documents in and out of the MS Office formats, there is little need
for most people to buy a copy from Microsoft.
So why in this environment should anyone go out and pay good money for a suite that comes from Microsoft?
Google is making significant headway with its powerful online mail, document, and calendar sharing services. Nevertheless, it doesn’t quite meet the power and flexibility – or cost, complexity, etc. – of an Exchange server, especially when it comes to shared contacts. Exchange is completely integrated with Outlook, and nothing else quite works so well for the people who need those features.
MAPI and OLE
Office provides several ways for other programs to communicate with them. A number of programs – especially business or industry-specific ones, use these to create emails or documents from scratch including word processing and spreadsheet documents. Unfortunately, in this case, no combination of Open Office, Thunderbird, etc. are going to quite do the job.
Other office suites currently are very capable when exporting to or importing from the Microsoft document formats. Minor variations in formatting can creep up between different versions of the Microsoft suite (2003, 2007, Mac) as well. Nevertheless, when formatting fidelity, etc. is a must, the results are much better if you stick to the same software all around instead of converting between completely different document formats.
Your boss/school/etc. Told You to.
You can argue that “Exchange” or “Compatibility” also qualifies here, but if your boss, company, or school says to use office, well, then that’s what you do.
If no-one is forcing you. If you don’t need complete integration with an Exchange server. If you don’t need as close to perfect compatibility as possible with other MS Office users, or use software that requires Office to use all of its features, you may want to consider the cheap or free alternatives available to you. Otherwise, well, you need to bite the bullet and go get a copy of MS Office.