More on Free Office Suites: Office on a Stick

More on Free Office Suites: Office on a StickMore on free Microsoft Office suite alteratives and their ramifications: Since my last post on the availability of free office suites, with emphasis on LibreOffice, I have received many comments. Several people mentioned the questionable start of Kingsoft. I was not aware of this, but apparently the original version of its free package expired after a year — without a previous warning! Of course, if the user paid for it, the company would re-activate the “free” package. That ploy seems to have ticked a lot of people off. I believe that, at this time, the free version is indeed free, but the scandal left a bad taste with many users.

One aspect of free office suites that I had overlooked in the last post is the possibility of using them without a dedicated host computer. Ob55555555 [sic] pointed out that OpenOffice can be loaded on a USB stick for portable application. I have not done that, or even looked into how to do it, but I do have Ubuntu on a stick complete with LibreOffice and Firefox. Sometimes popping the stick into a borrowed computer and booting to live Linux is useful both for immediate surfing the Internet and for the availability of an office suite that I am familiar with. (Live installation simply means booting to RAM from the stick without bothering the hard drive or the native OS. Most modern computers permit this. For those that do not, I carry a bootable CD of live Linux.) As a nice extra, Firefox can sync up with my bookmarks over the cloud so that surfing is just like at home. Checking email is not an issue with a Web-based mail client. What more can you ask for? And it all comes in a small flash drive.

My boot stick has a lot of empty space, so should I want to write a letter for later review or create a spreadsheet and save it, both the letter and the spreadsheet can be stored and not lost when the live session is closed. The other resources of the host computer are available with some effort, but accessing the host hard drive through Ubuntu is simple. This means that I could copy files from the host and edit them with LibreOffice and save the result of either or both the hard drive and stick. A word of warning: Before you let me or anyone else plug anything into your computer, be aware this is a security issue. A Windows logon password does not prevent my live Linux from accessing personal data. In fact, the stick has an application that will tell me the Windows passwords.

Violating security is potentially a bad thing since I could, given a few minutes alone with a computer, copy a lot of personal data on my USB stick and log off before anyone knew. But on the other hand, I have successfully recovered data from a client’s non-booting system this way before digging in to see what the problem was. Getting in and grabbing data before mucking about can save things that otherwise might be lost in the process of trying to fix the computer. Before hard drives completely fail, they sometimes signal their impending demise by suffering a few bad sectors. With a quick response, sometimes data can be salvaged before total failure.

Carrying this process a step further, why bother carrying a laptop or tablet with you when all you need for most things is a simple USB stick? Almost anywhere you go there will be a potential host for your live system. Staying at a motel? Log on to the communal computer and you will not leave a trail behind you on the hard drive. You might have to talk to management to make it happen, but that can be part of the adventure. What is life without a few puzzles? Finding a suitable host at other places such as airports can be a problem, but still, this is an interesting alternate lifestyle — no laptop.

I have not tried to make a live version of Microsoft Office or any other paid-for and protected software applications. It probably can be done with some effort and maybe by violating the user agreement. If so, that is another reason to become familiar with any of the free alternatives.

Finally, why do we think everyone needs a complete suite? If all you want is word processing, why buy or download a complete suite with components you are not planning to use? Having the equivalent of Microsoft Access will not do any good for the average user. LibreOffice comes with a great facility for writing mathematical expressions. I like it, but what fraction of the intended users need it? I think the answer is that people — power users and beginners, alike — want a simple decision. Download the suite. That is simple. By downloading the whole thing, they are assured of at least getting what they want. The alternative is to present users with a menu that will likely confuse and turn off a significant number. Hard drive space is essentially free, so why not simply include all applications with each package — even when that means a majority of functionality across all downloads will not be used?

So experiment and find the suite you like. Then I’ll bet you can find a spate of free tutorial videos for it. As a tutor, I suppose the availability of free tutorials should distress me, but I love it and am glad to share links with my clients. And it works both ways. Sometimes clients will send me links that I did not know about. The world has changed since I first tried to wade through an early manual for GIMP. Free things do not always mean cloudy documentation.