Getting work done can be expensive. The standard edition of Microsoft's new Office XP costs $499 for new users, or $249 if you're upgrading from an earlier version. Rather not spend that cash?
You can't get Office free -- not legally, at least. But there are gratis alternatives to Microsoft's ubiquitous, expensive application suite. Windows users who would rather not get by with Microsoft's cheaper, feature-starved Works can choose from two free but full-featured office programs -- Sun Microsystems' StarOffice (www.sun.com/products/staroffice/) and Software602's 602 Pro PC Suite (www.software602.com).
StarOffice 5.2 is, like Microsoft Office, a heavyweight. The 80-megabyte installer can take quite some time to download, even over a DSL or cable-modem connection. (The program is also available on CD-ROM with printed manuals for $39.95.) A typical StarOffice installation takes about 213 megs of hard-drive space.
StarOffice includes a word processor, a spreadsheet, presentation software, a calendar, an e-mail client, a graphics program, a database and math formula software. There's nothing missing from this toolbox.
At 15 megabytes to download, 602 Pro PC Suite is the leaner of the two free options. (The 602 refers to the registration number of the Czech computer club the company once was.) The software includes a word processor, spreadsheet and image editor. It doesn't offer as many applications as StarOffice -- the lack of a PowerPoint-equivalent presentation application is a notable absence -- and omits a few of the power-user features that the others include, such as macros. But 602 Pro has plenty of power for average users with more modest needs or less disk space to spare.
After you endure the downloads, StarOffice and 602 Pro are blissfully easy to install, fairly easy to use and quite sprightly in action on a newish, Pentium III-powered PC. They are simple to learn, using familiar menu arrangements and intuitive toolbars. As with any large application, you will have to experiment with the menus or read the help files to discover advanced features. Both programs include full-featured help systems that, lacking Microsoft's oft-maligned animated paper-clip assistant, are truly helpful. People who like to refer to a printed manual will be disappointed with a downloaded suite.
These suites' word processors offer features comparable to Microsoft Office's, including spell-checking as you type, spreadsheet importing options and the ability to export files as Web pages. 602 Pro, which by default displays fewer toolbars and floating menus than StarOffice, may be less daunting to new users.
The tradeoff for StarOffice's complexity is its comprehensive selection of such power-user functions as macro commands. 602 Pro reserves a handful of functions -- including a thesaurus -- for users who buy the $50 "Plus Pack." Trying to access one of these extended functions without paying gets you a pop-up window asking if you'd like to upgrade.
Both StarOffice and 602 Pro promise compatibility with Microsoft Office files -- that is, you can share .doc, .xls, and other files with your Microsoft-using colleagues. Neither can promise 100 percent compatibility with Microsoft-format files, since Microsoft is not always forthcoming with details about its proprietary file formats. We could read and print simple Word and Excel files with both StarOffice and 602 Pro, but files with complex tables and embedded graphics can thwart 602's applications.
Free software is great for us, but what's in it for these companies? Software 602 hopes users will be so enamored with its free office suite that they'll pay for the company's commercial offerings, which include printing and local area network management tools. Sun, meanwhile, makes money from technical support: The company charges a per-incident fee for telephone or online help for StarOffice. In addition, the company charges computer makers to bundle StarOffice on their PCs.
Sun also makes versions of StarOffice for Linux and Suns Solaris operating systems. Linux users can also try out another free office suite: KOffice (koffice.kde.org) is being developed by a team of programmers. Mac users don't have a no-cost option yet, although a version of StarOffice for Apple's Mac OS X is in the works (porting.openoffice.org/mac/).