Saturday, April 15, 2006

Fair Comparison of Microsoft Office and Open Office

TechSoup.org recently published a comparison by Idealware of Microsoft Office and Open Office here.

Acknowledging that a full comparison was outside the scope of their intent, they focus on word processing, spreadsheet use, and email and calendar (which is not technically in Open Office, but Idealware substitutes two other Open Source programs: Thunderbird for email and Sunbird for calendar).

This is an article that doesn't draw conclusions for you, but pretty clearly spells out the differences in the two products, while giving a good overview of what Open Source software is. Even though the article is geared toward U.S.-based non-profit groups, who can obtain Microsoft Office for "free or almost free," they still find much to promote in the Open Source model.

The article concludes with: "Personally, we like and use just about every piece of software mentioned in this article. You might want to consider installing both office suites to allow your users a choice. Personally, we like having choices."

I think Open Office for schools makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons that the article doesn't mention.

  1. Microsoft Office is not "free or almost free" for schools, and even though significantly discounted, does represent a substantial cost to schools. If Open Office is comparable to Microsoft Office, many schools will find that the savings make it worth switching.
  2. Open Office can be freely given to students to take home and put on their home computers. Especially for low-income families, this provides a significant bridge between their schoolwork and what they can accomplish at home.
  3. I'm old enough that there wasn't "word processing" when I was in high school (good old typing class!), but I've used many different word processors in my life, including some online ones now (ZohoWriter and Writely). If we are teaching "word processing" instead of the clerical skill of using a particular word processor, then there is an educational argument toward using alternative products that perform comparably.
Of course, I understand that many teachers have developed specific curricula around Microsoft Office, and may not feel they have the option to switch. But certainly, for free, it's worth a test drive at least. Probably the easiest way to test the most popular Open Source programs that run on Windows is to download the OpenCD, available here.

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