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How to Get by in College Without MS Office!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I seem to remember once learning something about antitrust laws that prevented companies from establishing monopolies over specific products. My high school government teacher must have been mistaken, because it sure seems like Microsoft has a monopoly on office suites (Forbes, 26, Dec. 2012). And the MS program suite is not cheap, which is the exact reason that antitrust laws were put into effect – to promote competition and keep prices down on products for consumers. The lowest price for the MS Office suite from the Microsoft online store is $79.99 for Office 365 University for students. Prices rise dramatically from there, up to $399.99 for the full Office Professional suite.

What college student can afford either of those when they are already spending tens of thousands of dollars on tuition, fees, room and board, books, and living expenses? Even online students who may be seeking a degree to get ahead in their careers could balk at these prices. What about free alternatives? Sure they are out there, but can you really use them to complete your degree program? Here is a look at three of the best MS Office alternatives (PC World, 17, Sept, 2012) and an evaluation of the feasibility of using them in college, as well as some tips for making sure that your peers and professors will be able to open and view your work and collaborate with you if you do.

The Contenders
To make things simple for the cost-conscious college student, I have minimized the legwork by choosing the most likely options for escaping the clutches of Microsoft. For each office suite I conducted a basic test to determine if each application in the suite would be familiar enough to experienced MS Office users to make the transition to the new program relatively painlessly. Additionally, I created sample documents from each program and attempted to open them on a different machine without the replacement programs installed and only Office 2010. I then indicated whether the document opened and was editable and, if not, what additional steps would be needed to make media created in the new programs compatible with MS Office. Here are the programs and results of the test.

Apache Open Office and LibreOffice (PC, Mac, or Linux) – These two are lumped together because, for the purposes of the college student, they are the same. They contain the same underlying source code and the same six applications: Writer (word processing), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentation), Draw (image manipulation), Base (database), and Math (math equations).

Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) – Google drive is an entire suite of office programs and online storage that is free to anyone with a (free) Google account. Google Drive is probably the most widely used of the MS Office alternatives with some organizations switching to it entirely as a cost saving measure. The one drawback to the Google suite is that all of the applications are online, so settings must be specifically adjusted to allow documents to be edited when an Internet connection is not present. Here’s how to use it offline.


Mac users could consider one more option – NeoOffice (Mac only), which is built on the same foundation as OpenOffice and LibreOffice. It is similar to the others but does, according to the PC World article, contain better enhancements for Mac use.

Getting the Job Done?
In my tests, both OpenOffice/LibreOffice and Google Drive worked as well as Microsoft Office programs for doing basic college-type tasks such as writing a paper, creating a presentation, or making a spreadsheet. In many ways I found it both refreshing and liberating to use programs other than the MS Office suite. For starters, Google Drive in particular addressed a problem that I often encounter when teaching my own students Office basics – knowing where everything is. I frequently get the question "What are all the ribbons and buttons for?" To which I often have no answer because there are simply too many things that you can possibly do in MS Word. Google Drive, in contrast, has a limited number of shiny bells and whistles, favoring instead an approach where all the basic and commonly used features are obvious and readily accessible.

One issue with the Google suite is that you will need to upload documents into your Google Drive folder in order to open them (unless you configure offline access), so you are adding an additional step or two any time you want to send a document as a Word formatted doc. However collaborating with others who are also using Google Drive is a far more seamless process than in MS applications.

The OpenOffice products are more straight forward clones of MS Office, and as such, also attempt to pack every possible feature that anyone might ever need into one nearly overwhelming package. That said, you can do everything you could possibly ever need to do with one of these more expansive free programs. The real question still remains, can you integrate things you have created with the vast majority of those around you who are likely to still be using MS Office? Particularly the professors who will need to grade your work.

Share and Share Alike?
This is really the moment of truth when it comes to using a non-mainstream suite to do your very important college work. Every college student’s worst nightmare is to submit an assignment and then receive a message back from the faculty member telling you that they could not open the document or that it contained only gibberish when they did open it. The excellent news here is that both the OpenOffice programs and Google Drive make saving your documents in MS Office compatible versions very simple, as the images below illustrate.


(Saving As in Google Drive)


(Saving As in Open Office) [open-office-save as]

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that, in the OpenOffice image, only the option to save the presentation in "ppt" format is available rather than the more recent "pptx" extension. This limitation could cause some difficulties when working with those using the latest versions of MS Office. In all likelihood, they would be saving their documents in versions of Powerpoint that would not be easily opened in OpenOffice. If they did open, there is a possibility that some of the formatting of the document would be lost. I tested this process and found that my previously created PPTX documents opened without a problem in OpenOffice and even the MS Office templates remained intact. So those concerns may be unfounded.

Recommendations
Go for it! If you are even a little tech-savvy, there is absolutely no reason that you can’t ditch MS Office, save yourself some money, and still be able to do all your school work and feel confident sharing it with others. The only caveat here is that you will need to be diligent about remembering to save your documents in the more ubiquitous MS Office format before sending them to others, and you may lose some formatting when opening MS documents in another application. In my opinion, the opportunity to start breaking up a monopoly, and save yourself some money in the process, is well worth the small amount of extra time you would need to invest in order to do so.

If you are willing to take this step, you may also be interested in learning how you can survive or even thrive without using Windows or the Mac OS. Stay tuned or follow on Twitter or Google+ for those tips and more.