What Free Office Suite is Best? Why?

Which Free Office Suite is Best? Why?This week I gave two related presentations, and already one of them might be outdated. The first presentation was on LibreOffice for a general audience of seniors. The second was on applications available for easy download on Linux presented at a PC users club. LibreOffice also played a part in that. Both audiences were composed of seniors who were interested in learning more about computers. Both presentations were well-received.

At the LibreOffice presentation, I mentioned that it is not the only free alternative to Microsoft Office by a long shot. There are at least five or six others, most of which I had tried. Then I gave the usual demonstrations of word processing and spreadsheets and demonstrated compatibility with Microsoft. Then we had an open Q and A period. One of the questions asked about LibreOffice was the history of how it came to be and how it compares with the alternatives. We discussed the difference between open source software and other types of free applications. Although I have tried most of them, there was a glaring exception. I knew about Kingsoft, and had read reviews of it, but had not downloaded and tried it. Kingsoft comes in two varieties: free and premium. For what it is worth, Kingsoft comes from China.

After the presentations, I decided to download and install the latest version of Kingsoft. It is really good! This causes me some heartburn and moral dilemma. Kingsoft is not from the open source community. It is from a Chinese company that would dearly love to have you expand beyond its free download version to its premium version — which is still much less expensive than the equivalent Microsoft product. This is not even close to the sense of community one gets using LibreOffice.

All this brings out is the old analogy that “free” can mean free as in “free beer” or free as in “free speech.” Both OpenOffice and LibreOffice are free in the first sense, but LibreOffice seems to be freer in the second sense, which contributed to their bifurcation. In the case of Kingsoft, there is no question about being free in the second sense. So how important is it that an application does what is it supposed to do and does it with compatibility? Does that parameter trump all other considerations?

Maybe a good comparison is the difference between regular and organic food. A nutritionist might find no difference between an inexpensive tomato and one that is certified organic. Maybe in a blindfold test you might not be able to tell the difference in taste. So why should you pay for organic? Maybe you do not believe the nutritionist. But I suspect that the majority of people who spend the extra money for organic products do it for essentially irrational, unsupported feelings. Organic sounds better, and I feel better when I buy it — so there!

In the same way, I might be unable to make a completely rational decision about which free office suite is best because the offerings range from highly organized corporate to loosely organized open source. The motives driving the developers range from pure money-making to something that is difficult to describe and not sound like I spend evenings around the campfire singing “Kumbaya.”

To work out of this mental dilemma, perhaps we should back up and try to define the scale upon which we measure the value of freely available suites. Because Microsoft is the elephant in the room, one measure is how compatible the components are with Microsoft products. The inability to import or export to Office is a strong negative.

Another value is related since it also involves Microsoft. How easy is it to learn a new application if one has a passing knowledge of Office?

Do candidate suites have a full offering of all major components and functions? The free version of Kingsoft does not seem to offer macros. Is it worthwhile to upgrade? AbiWord is a nice word processor, but it is not part of a complete office suite. The list could go on to examine Lotus Symphony, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and the various cloud alternatives (such as Google Docs). When we make the rational comparisons, I suspect that one or two might be eliminated, but the remainders are not significantly different from each other. Therefore, the ultimate choice takes us back to the moral one of whether or not we want to support a particular organization.

If the organization does not make a difference to you, then you are like the person who buys good (i.e., nutritious) food that might or might not be organic.

Finally, there is the issue of what your friends are using, and that consideration can trump every other parameter. If people in your community use LibreOffice, you will probably use it and benefit from mutual exchange of tips and shortcuts. If the people around you are not adventurous and unwilling to learn new things, they are likely going to stick with Microsoft and not even acknowledge that there are worthy alternatives.

My experience dealing with many seniors is that most of them are surprised that there is more than one game in town. Then they are doubly surprised to learn that some of the other games are free. Most of them are turned off by the concept of a free office. If it is free, they reason, it must be second-rate. This attitude amazes me since all of them use a free search engine and free email clients.

At this time, I know one person who uses Kingsoft primarily, and a handful of seniors who use either OpenOffice or LibreOffice. But the largest fraction of the seniors I know bought various versions of Microsoft Office. Some of them, who are on limited budgets, bought it after I recommended they try a free alternative. Go figure. But then I still prefer LibreOffice to Kingsoft and have difficulty defending that. Go figure.