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Top 4 Picks for Free Office Suite Software

Lori Halley 18 November 2008 7 comments

If you’re running any kind of organization, a suite of office software is essential — at the very least, you need a fairly good word-processing program, a spreadsheet application, and some sort of presentation software. Feature-rich Microsoft Office has made that particular market its own for at least the past decade, but now a few strong alternatives are fast gaining ground on the giant.

It’s largely a matter of money, although convenience and collaboration also weigh in when it comes to the web-based applications. For most of us, however, price tag is frankly a major consideration.

MS Office offers just about every function and feature you might imagine, and for the most part works well — although user reaction was strongly divided when the familiar menu system was replaced with a task-based “ribbon bar” in 2007, and there are those who are opposed to all things Microsoft on principle — but it carries a hefty price tag that can tax the small organization’s budget,  just as its rather heavy code can put a strain on the memory of older computers. And if you move between computers in the course of your work, a legal copy of the software will need to be installed and maintained on each local machine. That can add up to a considerable expense.

The alternative applications that were once just an upstart David to the Microsoft Goliath — “good enough” for casual home use, perhaps — have grown up into solid, hard-working office software able to give the traditional office software a run for its money. And the good news for budget-conscious nonprofits? The best of these alternative office suites are very low cost, or free.

OpenOffice.org: Free Open-Source Desktop Office Software

OpenOffice.org is a free, open-source alternative to the MS Office suite and offers virtually the same essential features. Five modules make up the suite — Writer (word processing), Calc (spreadsheets), Impress (presentations), Draw (graphics), and Base (databases).  OpenOffice.org comes in many languages, can be installed on as many computers as you want without charge, and plays well with other common office software so you won’t lose those documents created in another office program. And, yes, it’s available for the Mac, Linux, and Solaris platforms as well as for PCs running Windows.

But still, OpenOffice.org is desktop software: if you want to use it, it's got to be installed on the computer you're working on.

And the question of convenience is no small consideration — especially where you want to allow other people to collaborate with you on producing a document, spreadsheet, or presentation. Or when you need to access your documents when you’re away from your own computer. Or when you want to integrate your online and offline activities. Or when your own computer suddenly gives up the ghost, but you've got to be able to access your documents and somehow keep on working while you get it fixed or replaced...

And it’s there, in the areas of collaboration, integration, and portability, that the web-based applications have an edge on conventional desktop software.

Top 3 Free Web-Based Office Suites

There are any number of good smaller web-based application out there — and we’ve highlighted a few stand-alone web apps from time to time, as we’ll continue to do in the future. Sometimes, for a specific task, one easy-to-learn and easy-to-use web-based tool is simply the most efficient way to handle your workload.  But when it comes to “one stop shopping” for a full-featured suite of office software, realistically, there are three main contenders: Google Docs, ThinkFree, and Zoho.

David DeJean (ComputerWorld.com) writes:

While Google Docs, ThinkFree and Zoho vary in the breadth of the applications they offer, their features and their usability, they are all capable of doing real, useful work. They do what you expect of productivity apps — create documents, spreadsheets and presentations — in sophisticated fashion.

Then they take advantage of the fact that they are Web-based to add another level of productivity. In various ways, they incorporate “presence” features that let you enable collaboration with others from within the apps themselves — you can email files, share access to files (either read-only or read/write) with individual contacts or groups, or publish files (to a blog, a Web page, or a select group of contacts).

All three of these Web-based suites are free, and an account includes storage for your documents (ThinkFree and Zoho offer 1GB; Google doesn’t specify a size limit, but it lets you store up to 5,000 documents and 5,000 images online).

And because you work in a Web browser, they’re cross-platform applications by default…

DeJean’s detail-for-detail comparison of Google Docs vs. ThinkFree vs. Zoho is a fairly lengthy article but reading it should save you a good deal of time in the long run. With a good sense of what each of the “three contenders” has to offer, you’ll be that much closer to deciding which web-based office suite might best meet the needs of your organization.

Regular readers of the Wild Apricot blog will recall that from time to time we’ve looked at various features and capabilities of both Google Docs and Zoho's suite, but we haven’t yet talked about Thinkfree.

As announced just this week, you can try out Thinkfree Online by using your Google login, without having to set up a separate Thinkfree account. Convenient, indeed. Note, however, that you will be asked to grant access to your Google contacts in the process of logging in this way. I’m sure that the purpose of this is probably just to enable you to conveniently invite your contacts to share documents via Thinkfree Online, should you want to — but in this age of heightened privacy concerns, it would be reassuring if we could see all that spelled out somewhere. Note too that, according to Thinkfree’s instructional video, if you grant access and later decide to revoke it “will prevent you accessing your account for a period of one month.”

Don’t let that put you off, necessarily!  Thinkfree has a great deal to recommend it, especially as it’s designed to emulate Microsoft Office 2003 as closely as possible, so its interface will immediately look and feel familiar to MS Office users.  My own recommendation at this point would be to skip the easy Google login option, and just go ahead and set up a Thinkfree Online account if you want to try it out. The desktop version, Thinkfree Office, costs about $50 — and other related products, including the handy file synchronization manager, also carry a modest price tag — but the web-based version is free.

If you’re already a Thinkfree user, or a Google Docs or Zoho fan…  what was it that made you choose one product over the others? Or is there another alternative office suite that you’d like to see added to this shortlist? Please, share your thoughts in the comments!

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Tuesday, 18 November 2008 at 4:26 PM


  • Ashley Messick said:

    Tuesday, 18 November 2008 at 9:02 AM

    I have been using both Google Docs and OpenOffice at home on my Mac. After a year of these products and then using Office 2007 extensively on my work computer I am finally going to break down and have to purchase either Office for Mac or iWork very soon. If you can afford the price tag even of the non-professional editions in my opinion it is really worth it. The free versions are good for basic functions but just cannot compare with anything more complex, in my opinion.  

    BUT for organizations who cannot afford this option I would say that Google docs has been a very good option. I also like that you are able to share documents easily and have group collaboration. The one thing I have had to get over is that I cannot expect it to have the functionality the Word 2007 (or 2003) would have, especially with the visual formatting choices. I am using OpenOffice on my Mac and have found it to have a number of issues with functionality that is frustrating and running somewhat slow. Not sure if it is better on PC or not. Anyone know the comparison?  

  • Ruby Sinreich said:

    Tuesday, 18 November 2008 at 9:14 AM

    Ashley have you tried NeoOffice? It's basically OpenOffice but designed to work natively on the Mac. Since I've downloaded it, I have not needed to open any of my MS applications.

    Rebecca, where did you get that Google lets you host 5,000 images and files online? The only way I know to do that is to e-mail a file to Gmail.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Tuesday, 18 November 2008 at 9:41 AM

    Ruby, you can store documents online with Google Docs because it's a web-based application: the documents have to be hosted at Google. With regard to the 5,000 number, specifically, that's part of the quote from David DeJean's review on ComputerWorld.com -- his information about the Google Docs hosting limit is accurate, as of this writing. For a long time Google was rather vague about the limits, but here's the link for the Google help page that spells it out: http://docs.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=37603&topic=15119

    Hope this helps to clear that up for you!

  • John Haydon said:

    Tuesday, 18 November 2008 at 11:57 AM


    Thanks for pointing out ThinkFree! I've been using Google for a while, but might check this other option.


  • Roy Abraham said:

    Wednesday, 19 November 2008 at 9:28 AM

    Don't forget IBM Lotus Symphony. It's based on Open Office and has nifty features like integrated word processor/spreadsheet etc.


    Also Adobe Buzzword is a very nice word-processor. http://buzzword.acrobat.com

  • Brian said:

    Saturday, 29 November 2008 at 4:49 PM

    For business, try Oxygen Office. It is a OpenOffice variant modified for businesses.  I've been running it at the office for a bit more than a year it is stable and works very well with MS formatted documents.

    Also, if not needing a presentation system, there is Abiword and Gnumeric. These are much less bloated than the OOo and its variants.  

    Lastly, if using Windows, there is a great little program the overlays Wordpad. Jarte has 2 versions, the free and the same with a couple of little upgrades for a few dollars. It is fast, very easy to use and can be totally contained on a flash drive.  I've got it on each computer and find more and more I am pulling it up for almost everything.

    The web based Google Docs is interesting and with time I think they will mature and have value and be usable but, currently not really a replacement for a desk based system unless you only need it for infrequent use.

  • Didi said:

    Wednesday, 03 June 2009 at 2:48 AM

    You should try "SSuite Office - The Fifth Element".

    It is a fully stocked office suite with more that 30 very useful applications. It is only 57 MB in size after installation.

    It also does not need to run on Java or .NET.

    Page Link:


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