Small Business Services

Office Alternatives: Can You Use a Free Suite?

Remember paying hundreds of dollars for Microsoft Office suites? There was a time when you didn’t have a lot of options if your business needed to do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.

Most people kind of knew that they were buying way more power than they’d ever need. In fact, it’s been estimated that the average user didn’t—and still doesn’t—implement  more than about 10 percent of these applications’ features.

Three things happened, though, to loosen Microsoft’s grip on the productivity suite market. First, the World Wide Web was invented, and the most popular, often-used piece of online software—the web browser—was created. It was free. Much of the content and some of the applications that we used to pay for were free.

Second, alternate office suites emerged. Some came and went, but today, there’s a handful of them that might serve you well – most notably, Google Docs/Drive. Early versions of free productivity suites had problems with file compatibility, so users who had to make files available in true .doc or .xls formats couldn’t use them. That’s improved greatly.

Finally, businesses liked the portability and collaborative possibilities of the cloud. Microsoft started to add some of those attributes to its desktop-bound Office suite, and eventually introduced its Office 365 Business for as little as $8.25/month, for up to five PCs or Macs plus five tablets and five smartphones. It includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, and Access (Publisher and Access available on PC only).

You can still buy the boxed suites, but these range from $229.99 for Office Home & Business 2016 to $399.99 for Office Professional 2016. You have to pay for upgrades, and they can only be used on one PC or Mac.

Still Not Free

Today’s roughly $100/year price tag for Office 365 is a good deal for small businesses. It’s a great deal, actually, compared to the options that were available even 10 years ago.

But it’s still $100/year that you wouldn’t necessarily have to spend. And there are other reasons many businesses have chosen to go the free route. For example:

  • Some like the idea of using an application that has a trimmer feature set, one that doesn’t have a massive amount of functionality that they’ll never use.
  • Others are drawn to products that are designed for easy collaboration.
  • Still others simply like supporting companies that aren’t Microsoft.

Google Docs and the later Google Drive (the names are still often used interchangeably, though you can access the same content from either; Google Drive also offers additional cloud storage) are the most popular and well-known of the free office suites. They were built for sharing, so companies that have remote staff or often have teams working on the same project would benefit.

Google’s office suite contains only a subset of the applications you’ll find in even Office 365. You can create documents (Google Docs), spreadsheets (Google Sheets), and presentations (Google Slides). Countless add-ons, though, are available to extend its usefulness.

Google’s office tools also don’t have Microsoft Office’s stylized toolbars. Considering that most people don’t click on more than about one out of 10 of those pretty icons, and that even power users spend most of their time staring at the workspace itself, this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker to the majority.

A Trio to Consider

There are other free suites that aren’t cloud-based like Google Docs/Drive; you’ll have to download and install them on your local system. Some offer mobile apps, and many are housed in a user interface that resembles Microsoft’s much more than Google does.

Two of them are open-source, meaning that their “source code” (the code programmers use to make applications work and usually guard carefully) is available. If you wanted to, you could modify the software and distribute it yourself. You can also just use it as is. They are:

  • LibreOffice includes Writer, Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentations), Draw (drawing and flowcharting), Base (database manager), Math (mathematics-editing), and Charts.
  • Apache OpenOffice shares history with LibreOffice, so it offers a similar set of applications.

WPS Office is also highly-regarded; it supports word-processing, presentations, and spreadsheets, and is also available for iOS and Android mobile devices. The Personal Edition is free, but it drops watermarks into your printouts and PDFs. To get rid of those, you’ll have to pay $44.99/year or $79.99/lifetime subscription.

If you work for a larger business, you’re probably already locked into company-wide productivity applications. Smaller organizations may find a better fit with one of these free (or almost-free) office suites.

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