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Why are we so tied to Microsoft Office?

MS Office

If you’re looking for a new office suite for your computer, why fork out for Microsoft Office when there are free alternatives that are just as good? Guest author Thomas Roberts, aged 10, looks at the options.

Everywhere I go, I see people using Microsoft Office.

Schools, works, homes, pretty much anywhere with a computer will have Microsoft Office installed.

But the owners of the computers must have had to pay a lot (or get freebies from Microsoft, as is often the case with schools) as Microsoft Office is very expensive.

It costs £60 a year for a 1-PC Office 365, more than £80 a year for 5-PC Office 365, and over £100 (one-off) for the most basic Office 2016 plan.

Businesses may have to pay even more for Office Professional, which costs just under £300.

Microsoft Office alternatives

If you’re looking for a new computer but the Which? Best Buy (or otherwise) you really want doesn’t have Microsoft Office pre-installed, there are free alternatives out there.

Google Docs is one example. Another is LibreOffice, which is available for Windows, Mac and Linux (it’s usually pre-installed on Linux).

It also has a viewer (can edit, but you need to enable experimental features) for Android. This is available on Google Play, F-Droid and as an APK download from the LibreOffice website.

LibreOffice can do all of the things Office can do: there’s an equivalent for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, etc, and it can edit PDFs.

The UK government use the format that LibreOffice uses (OpenDocument Format) to publish their documents.

It does this so as many people as possible can read and access its documents without having to pay the hefty price that Microsoft demand.

Using OpenDocument Format

ODF isn’t a specialist Linux-only format, so why aren’t more of us using it?

Well, I think there are several reasons why.

Firstly, I don’t think many people are aware there are alternatives to Microsoft Office out there.

Secondly, they worry about compatibility issues.

There are some issues, mainly with things like fonts, bullet-point styles and images. But if you’re running Windows, you’ll be able to use Microsoft fonts that work on Word, and you can manually install MS fonts on Linux.

Generally, ODF documents are perfectly readable on Microsoft Office and vice-versa.

Lastly, many people think that alternatives aren’t nearly as user-friendly as Microsoft Office, but this isn’t true.

If you’re used to Microsoft Office then LibreOffice should be easy to get used to (especially if you enable the experimental NotebookBar, which is similar to the MS Office Ribbon).

If you’d prefer not to have your sensitive documents in the Cloud or you just don’t need it, then LibreOffice is a perfect alternative.

This is a guest post by Thomas Roberts, aged 10, who visited the Which? offices in Paddington last week. Thomas has read Which? for two years and has successfully advised his family and others on various purchases. His visit was a belated Christmas treat.

Do you use an alternative to Microsoft Office or are you firmly tied to it?


Hi Thomas, thanks for the convo.

I have used Microsoft Windows and Office for years, ever since it first came along to my place of work decades ago. I also use it at home, not only because it makes my life easier not to have to switch between systems, but also because I happen to like Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office.

I do remember older programmes such as Aldus Pagemaker – which I quite liked, and Foxpro – which I found hopelessly rigid, to say the least, and the first computer I used certainly didn’t have Windows on it. I can’t remember what it was, but I can’t say I found it user-friendly. When Windows and Office arrived on my work scene, they were like a breath of fresh air, although I appreciate that this may be a reflection on the place where I worked.

I know, like and understand Windows and Office. Yes, sometimes Microsoft can get it very wrong, eg with Windows 10. I like using Word, Excel, Access, Office and Outlook, even if I do find them frustrating and rather limited at times. I have lost count on the number of programmes I have had to use since I have used computers, word processors and databases mainly, but also spreadsheets, publishers and more, including Apple systems, and I have also lost count of the number of times I have wished that the designers had taken a leaf off Microsoft’s book, ie, simply, think of the user and adapt. Think of the user.

Given the success of Microsoft, which can’t be entirely put down to pre-installation and other business tactics, I’m not alone.

But you’re right, they’re not the only ones out there, luckily. Each to her own.

PS: I confirm that I do not work for Microsoft, have not received any money from them to say the above, nor am I currently applying for a job with them. :0)

I just learnt about the “experimental NotebookBar” and will be checking that out soon. The interface to LibreOffice has always put me off once I started using the ribbon in MS Office.

Conversely, anyone who does not like the MS ribbon may prefer the more traditional arrangement of the LibreOffice menu structure.

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Duncan, you tale may illustrate why many ordinary folk don’t need, and should not burden themselves with, Windows PCs at home.

When the main (or sole?) purpose of a home PC is to serve as an internet “terminal”, then all you really need is a PC with a minimal linux-based OS and a decent browser. I think that is what ChromeBooks are supposed to be.

Anyone who cannot afford £200 for a new ChromeBook can readily make their own linux box. Secondhand Vista-era PCs are now nice and cheap, and seem to do much better running Xubuntu than they ever will with either Vista or W10.

Derek, agree – I picked up a refurbished Dell Opliplex 760 from a leading online auction site for just over £100 including screen, k/b etc. and it works just fine (PC is ex Cardiff Council according to message built into BIOS which displays at boot-up). There are loads of 2nd hand machines available having been released from business due to hardware upgrades, refurbished then sold on via online auction sites and they often come with a 12 month guarantee even at the £100 mark. Personally I don’t worry about the guarantee as am comfortable swapping parts myself.

I can recall using early generation word processors – DW4 for PC’s and its mainframe counterpart, DW370 which ran on IBM mainframes and was not at all user-friendly. I now run Linux Mint on desktop and Ubuntu on a laptop; Libre Office runs fine on these platforms, is free and, I recall, shipped with the Linux install ICO which itself is free. I might add that the laptop originally ran Win10 (free u/g from the pre-installed Win7 for 1st year after Win10 release date) but Win10 was a bit too much for 5 year old hardware and performance was often very slow. Ditching Windows and replacing it with Ubuntu transformed the Sony laptop into what effectively was a new machine and I’ve never looked back.

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As a translator, I have to be compatible with what my clients use, so I am forced to use Microsoft Word. Its biggest drawback, in my opinion, is the clunky margins which have a mind of their own. Microsoft Word was the word processor that managed to gain ascendency over all others, but it is by no means the best word processor I have ever used. Locoscript on the Amstrad was far superior. In the case of Hebrew, which I also translate, I can’t use Word as it is not Hebrew-enabled for Macintosh so I use a Hebrew WP program called Mellel which works very similarly and converts seamlessly to Word.

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One great feature of EU law is the right to buy (and sell) secondhand software licences. So a nice cheap way for achieving compatibility with co-workers using MS Office is to buy a “used” copy of MS Office.