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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?


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Hi Thomas and welcome to Which? Conversation.

I started to use ‘Word for Windows’ – the predecessor of Microsoft Word – in 1990. I carried on using Word, Excel and PowerPoint because that was what most people used where I worked. Now that I’m retired, a charity makes Microsoft Office available to people who work for it.

One of these days I will switch to using other software because I have never liked Microsoft Office.

Hi Thomas, we use MS Office for very much the same reasons as wavechange.

I still have my very first version on floppy disks somewhere. Then we were able to purchase later versions very cheaply through a work scheme, and have 3 versions going at the moment on different computers.

I enjoyed using earlier Microsoft products, there was great camaraderie on computer forums as we learned what went on inside the box and helped each other to fix problems. But the way MS has forced itself on us over the years especially with Win10, made access to inside the box harder, depleting the knowledge that was available, I will not be going MS on future computers. The latest nail in the coffin was to remove the ability to control our own updates on Win7. As my OS no longer gets updated, MS have only hastened my departure and I will be going Linux next time.

So next time I will also not be using MS Office.

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Hi Thomas – I would be very glad if Microsoft had never existed and I am particularly glad that Infernal Explorer has been phased out. I have not bought any copies of MS Office and use it just because it has been provided for my use.

I have not seen the Edge browser, probably because I am a Mac user. The only windows I have in my house are double glazed. 🙂

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Hi Thomas / All,

A long time ago, in a century far, far away, all but high end PCs were too weedy to run Microsoft Windows. Lotus 123 was, by far, the dominant spreadsheet and there were many different word processing programs available. Microsoft had an offering that was simply called Word.

Arguably, the best and most successful pre-Windows PC word processor was WordPerfect. But, whenever really fancy text was called for, the dominant microcomputer was the AppleMac – you really either needed one of those or desktop publishing software on a Unix workstation .

Where Apple led, Microsoft followed with a succession of versions of Windows. At least for my little world of overworked engineers and pointy haired managers, it was Microsoft Excel that established Microsoft Office as the go to suite for PC and Mac office software.

Excel allowed busy managers to produce clear and simple spreadsheet presentations and when longer reports were needed, it seemed to be quicker and easier to paste Excel data into Word for Windows than into anything else.

Hence, even though Microsoft Word was by no means the best available word processor, those managers pretty soon worked out that we should all adopt Microsoft Office as our standard office suite.

In time, both Lotus and WordPerfect fell by the way side, leaving MS Office as the dominant PC office suite. Because most folk used Office at work, they also wanted to have it at home too.

Overtime, Microsoft got better and better at charging for every Office installation out there. “Always on” internet connections and less generous licence conditions allowed licensing software to prevent us wage slaves from just installing copies of our work software at home. Office also grew to be more and more sophisticated (i.e. complicated) to the point where it now far exceeds the needs of typical home users.

In recent years, there have always been market opportunities for simpler/better/cheaper alternatives to Microsoft Office. Hence the rise of StarOffice/OpenOffice/LibreOffice now provides one viable alternative to MS Office.

Personally, I have been making modest home use of LibreOffice for a few years now.

I can also access MS Office at home, but, in my case, that would now require additional effort to either (a) boot a slow and potentially insecure Windows PC or (b) install both Wine and Office on one of my linux PCs (and I see no reason to mess up my nice linux PC by putting nasty Windows software on it).

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Duncan, as a Linux user, I laugh in the face of viruses masquerading as useful Windows executables. I do worry that Wine might open some back doors there, but more significantly, why should I compromise the integrity of legally GPL-licensed linux boxes with unlicensed copies of Windows apps?

Back in 1999 I had repeated problems with a virus carried with Microsoft Word files. It was the macro virus ‘Melissa’ and affected both Macs and PCs. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macro_virus

Thankfully removal was simple, but I had to do this each time I was given an infected file by email or on a floppy disk. Melissa was the only virus I have ever encountered on my Macintosh computers, at work or at home. Another virus affecting Microsoft Office was the Concept virus but I escaped that one. I wonder if modern versions of Office can spread viruses.

WordPerfect is still around but it is not free or cheap. Annoyingly, cheap update versions are not available for Home & Student editions, only for the full priced versions, while paper based support is minimal (I find on-line manuals great as aide-memoires but not good for learning from scratch with new terminology). However, sSome of us like it and still use it to avoid learning a new system.

I wonder why OpenOffice seems to have gone out of fashion? I installed it back in 2008, when I bought my current iMac, as it was recommended by Which? and it was free.
It’s been updated as new versions have appeared and I can’t recall any particular problems with it, although it is only really used for letters and spreadsheets.

Compatibility may the main issue, Dave. If you are not exchanging files then there are plenty of satisfactory options and it’s just down to personal choice.

I regularly receive files from OpenOffice users and the layout of pages is completely different from what the user has produced on their computer. The default seems to be to save word processing files in the .odt format, which my Mac does not read, nor can users of older PCs. I know that converters are available but my opinion is that the sender should think about what the recipient can use. Saving files as pdf documents is the obvious choice unless the recipient is expected to modify the file.

I totally agree with wavechange. Even across various versions of Word let alone the various other word processing packages the delivered “view” is often different across recipients. Use word processing packages for word processing – even across different products. For presenting documents use Save As > pdf and in that way the document will be a true wysiwyg (what you see is what you get).

MS Word is often the standard word processing package across many/most businesses and often for truly good business reasons: cost, support, and for the true breadth of its capability in being able to manage massive documents across very large business users. And yet it is true that for most users they may only use 10 per cent of its capability. However for many businesses they need many of the advanced facilities not available or designed into the alternative packages. Thus Word is for most the baseline standard for word processing and the pdf is the standard for sharing documents.

Yes I curse Word on occasion! Its inability to always nail down graphics and pictures to the place on a page like you can in a desktop publishing package like Adobe’s InDesign is one simple example. But it can manage contents lists, headers, footers, bookmarks, links and goodness knows what else.

Horses for courses (appropriate packages for users) is what its about. That and recognising when editing capabilies are complete or not required and wysiwyg must rule the distribution.

Well done Thomas for starting off this debate!

I use MS Word as an amateur to produce a variety of documents, including pictorial calendars and sports fixture lists. I don’t have a Publishing program but have managed successfully what I need to do by using the “insert” text box” feature to place text, photos and graphics where I want them. Saving as .pdf ensures the recipient can open the file even if they do not have Word, or the latest version I am using.

Keith says:
25 February 2017

OpenOffice hasn’t gone out of fashion. IIRC, development ceased when Oracle bought out Sun Microsystems, (who led the OpenOffice development, having themselves acquired the product in its original guise as StarOffice). The open source development community, unhappy with Oracle’s stewardship of the OpenOffice code base, forked development and resurrected the product under its new name of LibreOffice.

OpenOffice saves files in many formats, something MS Office never used to do. It is easy to change the default save format to whatever you like or, as has already been suggested, save it as PDF. Anyway on the subject of formats why should someone expect me to have MS Office to view their file, I might choose to use Wordstar 6 for DOS?
MS Office does have a slightly better find and replace function than OpenOffice. however I find Openoffice good enough that I deleted MS Office when I left work and no longer qualified for a “site user home extension licence”.

Word processors generally offer the option of saving in RTF (rich text format), which is a good way of preserving much of the format of a document that does not contain embedded images etc. All computers should be able to open .rtf files, so it is a good option if the recipient will be editing the document. PDF is best if they will just be reading it.

As JohnS1948 says, there are often valid reasons for cursing MS Word.

I have even encountered some users who pronounce its leading letter as a “T”.

When starting computing on a budget I was recommended Open Office. Still use it and see little difference from Libre Office which I also use. Both have been used to write and edit novels. Sending PDF files to publishers is safe and easy. Both have also been used to create ebooks, with help from Sigil.

Lynda Jane says:
25 February 2017

We still run a very elderly version of Lotus Smartsuite – very surprised that we could load it up on Windows 10. We do have Word and Excel Starter 2010, which I think came free on our last PC, mainly so that we can attach the odd document to e-mails when the recipient has only Microsoft software. But we’re seriously thinking about ditching it in favour of something like LibreOffice.

I have been using OpenOffice since I retired 12 years ago, and it does everything that MS Office Professional does. Why indeed pay a fortune for something when perfectly good alternatives are available for nothing.

I use to love Microsoft Office which I have used freely on previous computers, now sadly the cost of Microsoft s Office I will not bare. I currently use Libre Office [you can donate a small amount if you wish] but it is free as with Apache, Google and a few other suites so why go to the expense of paying for something that as a home computer-er you only use occasionally. I do keep a load of football records on spreadsheets and Libre office manages them well.

Pure habit here. I’ve owned Word ever since it appeared on Windows 3. Everything I’ve ever written has been done on it. Agreed it’s no longer any better than others, partly because Microsoft in a very, very rare fit of generosity, let others become compatible with it. I can’t justify (forgive the pun) using Word, but I’ll keep doing so. How dare they ask me to rent it year on year! No, I have my own copy and a copy of Publisher which dates back to the last century but still works. Daft, or what!

It is not just Microsoft that are being greedy. I have used Adobe Creative Suite 4 since soon after it was launched. I mainly use InDesign for desktop publishing, Dreamweaver for websites and Photoshop for working with images. It was expensive, but I make regular use of it. Now Adobe want £45.73 PER MONTH for access to the latest software plus some cloud storage. I now have to use an old computer operating system for all components of Adobe CS4 to work properly, but that’s not a problem. Copies of Adobe CS6, the last standalone version, are popular on the secondhand market.

I wonder if we have any old hands who remember Aldus PageMaker, which eventually became Adobe InDesign.

Open Source Adobe InDesign Alternatives – AlternativeTo.net

Open Source Adobe Dreamweaver Alternatives – AlternativeTo.net

Open Source Adobe Photoshop Alternatives – AlternativeTo.net

Extremely impressed with your article, Thomas.
I am not a computer whizz kid – completely the opposite – but regularly use Libre Office and have to send the document to others. It is a strictly formatted document but the recipients either cannot open it or, if they can, then the formatting has gone completely haywire. I have tried all the different file types including Microsoft word 2007/2010 xml (.docx) which I was assured would work – but it doesn’t. I cannot see any way of saving it as a pdf document. Any help would be appreciated. I am working on an Apple Mac.

If you have a Mac you can save any document as a pdf. That has been the case since the OS X operating system arrived in 2001. Select the Print menu and choose Save as PDF.

MS Office 2007(and other later versions) can import the open document format (e.g. odt & ods) files used by LibreOffice.

Office 2010 can export to those formats too – although that facility may be disabled by default (it is where I work).

Anyone still using earlier MS Office versions may need to use an add-in before they can read these formats.

LibreOffice Word can also offer to save files in either of the Microsoft proprietary .doc and .docx formats that Word uses by default.

Any of the above file format conversions may “scramble” documents to a greater or lesser degree; but even the use of MS Word to convert Word files between doc and docx can cause this.

Helping folk to use non-Microsoft software is not a business priority for Microsoft, so they don’t like to make things easy for LibreOffice users.

Linux also allows you to print anything as a PDF file. Postscript files are also an option.

A Shand says:
25 February 2017

I have used Microsoft Office for many years; it works and I understand it. No desire to learn a new system.

Understandable. However for those without legacy copies of Office paying a monthly fee to M$ when OfficeLibre does it all anyway for free seems entirly logical not to use MS.

I do of course remember to donate to support the Office Libre team. Without these teams MS would not need to evolve. Firefox , Thunderbird, Opera, Irfanview and VLC are all first rate products that should be encouraged.

Incidentally when I started on PC’s in the 1980’s it was Lotus 123 but then came QuattroPro which was the bees knees.

The same reason as why many are “tied ” to Apple and other brand names of many products Many reasons not just one Think why you always but certain products and never buy another brand even when Which tells you the alternative is better value or much better product That is what many just do ??

My top tip for using Word is to display non-printing characters such as paragraph breaks, page breaks and spaces. Learning how the software works can remove a lot of frustration when it appears to behave unpredictably.

It is amazing how many people indent text and images by repeatedly pressing the spacebar and move to the next page by repeatedly pressing the return key, even after using the software for decades. I know some people who put page numbers on each page rather than use the facility to do this automatically.

“My top tip for using Word is to display non-printing characters such as paragraph breaks, page breaks and spaces. ”

I agree that is good advice. The “reveal codes” option in WordPrefect does a similar job, only much better (and then, of course, there’s LaTex).

It does not surprise me that alternative software does a better job. I presume that WordPrefect is intended for use by school pupils that have been given a position of responsibility. 🙂

Hi Thomas,

I first bought Microsoft Word in 1984. The shop salesman said I should be buying WordStar or WordPerfect, because Microsoft Word was not nearly as popular, but I stuck to my guns!

I learned how to program printers with Microsoft Word. It was a DOS program back then. In those days, every word processing software package came with hundreds of printer drivers. If you had a new or unusual printer model, you had to create your own printer driver.

Later on Word came with Windows Version 1. Windows was only there to provide a graphical interface to compete with Apple and was tied to use with Word – that was all you could do with it.

Then finally, when Windows 3 came along (after Windows 2), all the printer drivers were integrated and Microsoft began to dominate the PC application software world, not just the DOS and Windows operating systems. So they deserve at least some of the credit for where we are today, and if people like me had not supported them with product fees, none of the free software you are mentioning would have been nearly as functionally rich and advanced as it is!

In fact, if the company you work for is a Microsoft Office user – and many are because they need the product support and are reluctant to take the risk on free software – there is an employee scheme where you can buy the entire Microsoft Office Professional suite for home use for just £20.

For commercial companies, it is all about risk and the high cost of change. Switching to a new product can cost £100’s per employee, on re-installation of software, downtime and training. Do this across thousands of computers, and you are looking at projects costing over £1 million.

But you are right. For many home users, and particularly those who do not use Microsoft products at work, there is no reason not to look at the alternatives.

I hope this helps you understand why many companies still use Microsoft Office and will continue to pay for it.

Michael P says:
26 February 2017

It seems to me that MS Office is computing, like a language, a lot of people understand. So, even if I did not use it at work, this would still heavily weigh in its favour. But because I have used it at work, and for many years, I really do not want to learn how to do something using alternative software. Sometimes it’s hard enough to remember how to deploy a rarely-used feature (by me) in MS Office; then the online help comes in very handy. Finally, I rather fear that alternative software has not all the features of MS Office such as the mathematical functions of Excel and the integration of products, e.g. Excel and Access.

Gerard Phelan says:
26 February 2017

Another aspect is programmability. I have been creating applications based on Excel and Access (database) for over 20 years. That uses the built-in programming language Visual Basic for Applications – VBA. I have 20 years experience of how to use VBA to make things happen. I know LibreOffice also has a programming language , but using that would require starting again to learn how to make things happen, with the extra worry that abilities Microsoft has added to VBA over 20 years may not yet have been added to LibreOffice. For me I see a clear trade-off between the high cost of a future upgrade to my current Office Professional 2010 and the high investment of time required in learning the LibreOffice programming language. I would rather invest my time in things I enjoy doing and pay the money!

Another option is to just use an older version of MS Office. By default use Office 2003 which is fine for everyday use. The downloadable converter enables you to read later Office files, eg docx, xlsx and pptx. I also use the starter version of Office 2010 that came with the PC. You can by legit copies for £30-£40.

I don’t use Outlook though

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Robin Lynn says:
26 February 2017

Interesting that a 10-year-old should have instigated such a wonderful trip down memory lane!

Thomas is probably a bit bemused by it all, but perhaps his father or grandfather will be able to relate to some of the comments. 🙂