One of the greatest inventions since the personal computer is the personal computer office suite. These software collections can handle most productivity tasks of a typical small or home office user or home user. Deals can be had.
All major office suites include at least a word processor, spreadsheet program, and presentation program. Depending on the suite and the version, a suite can also include a database program, photo editor, desktop publishing program, diagramming program, math program, and more.
Integrated software for the PC has existed since close to the beginning of PCs, with Lotus Symphony for DOS being the first popular PC suite, introduced in 1984. Claris AppleWorks for the Apple II computer was also released that year.
Microsoft began blowing away the rest of the office suite market in 1990 with the introduction of Microsoft Office in versions for Windows and the Mac. Today Microsoft Office remains the market leader by a wide margin.
In recent years, however, Microsoft Office's market strength has coalesced around the "enterprise," typically large companies who buy in bulk through site licenses. Microsoft Office today is a lot like IBM in the past, for whom the motto "You can't go wrong with IBM" existed in the minds of management information systems buyers.
Microsoft Office has a 90% share in the enterprise market, according to market research firm Gartner. Few large firms even consider other office suites, only 6% of the companies surveyed, according to another study by market research firm Forrester.
After a long run, Lotus SmartSuite, a successor to Lotus Symphony, was withdrawn from the market this past June. WordPerfect Office is still around, though barely, with only 1% of the enterprise market, according to Forrester.
Things are more interesting with small and home office users, home users, and students. A movement is afoot toward other office suites, with LibreOffice and Google Docs being the most popular alternatives. Each points to interesting personal computing trends. LibreOffice is free for all users, Google Docs for most users.
LibreOffice (www.libreoffice.org) is traditional software that you load from your computer's hard disk, except you install it by downloading from the Internet instead of copying from CDs. LibreOffice is "open-source" software, meaning that anybody with the programming skills can share in its development.
Its past is almost as interesting as its present and future. LibreOffice is based on OpenOffice, launched in 2002 by Microsoft archrival Sun Microsystems as a free alternative to Microsoft Office, which was and remains expensive compared with most other software. LibreOffice was officially released in January 2011.
As the most popular open-source office suite, LibreOffice is made available by the Document Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has received funding from companies such as Google, Novell, and Red Hat.
LibreOffice is available in versions for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. It consists of a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation program, database management program, drawing program, and math program.
The positives to LibreOffice are its quality and comprehensiveness, Microsoft Office compatibility, and free cost.
The biggest negative to LibreOffice is that it's not 100% Microsoft Office compatible. Complex formatting, in particula, can get mangled if you open a document using Microsoft Office that was saved using LibreOffice.
Google Docs (www.docs.google.com) is "cloud" software that you can access only through your web browser when connected to the Internet. It consists of a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation program, drawing program, and forms program.
Launched in 2007, Google Docs is available to users of any Internet platform and is the most popular cloud office suite.
Google Docs is free for individual and educational users, with fees for business users starting at $5 per month.
The biggest positives to Google Docs are its portability and security. You can easily work on documents using different computers from different locations, and you can easily collaborate on documents in real-time with other users. It automatically saves documents to prevent data loss.
The biggest negative to Google Docs is its relatively poor compatibility with Microsoft Office. It's also not as feature rich as LibreOffice. If you lose your Internet connection, you can't use it.
Apple has an equivalent to LibreOffice, Apple iWork, for users of its OS X and iOS operating systems, though it's not as robust. Apple recently began offering iWork for free to buyers of new Apple computers and devices.
Microsoft has an equivalent to Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, that like Microsoft Office is relatively expensive. The charge to enterprises is $20 per user per month.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.