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A New Outlook on Office Software

There's a set way to review Microsoft Office competitors: Open up a bunch of Office files in the competing software to see if they look just like they did in Office, then create a set of files in the competitor and verify that they look identical in Office. Finally, verify that every function and option in Office has been replicated by its would-be rival.

I fully expect to get some reader objections to today's column because it doesn't employ that yardstick.

It's not that I don't know how to write that review, I've done versions of it before. But I no longer think it's a particularly useful way to evaluate this kind of software. I believe it ignores a few realities about how people try to get work done on a computer when they're not being paid to do so.

1. How much work do most home users put into Word, Excel and PowerPoint anyway? If you look at a lot of home-made files created in these programs, you'd think that Word's a typewriter, Excel's a calculator and PowerPoint is a stack of flash cards. Most of the time, people aren't changing the default fonts or templates, which makes it easy to painlessly open documents in Microsoft's different formats.

2. Now think about those exceptions to that pattern, the documents that people pour their creativity, effort and time: resumes, invitations, newsletters and school presentations. These are pretty much all produced only for other people to read, not edit, right? In these cases, an easy, reliable way to generate a read-only copy that will look the same on anybody's computer (for instance, a PDF or Web-page export option) is all you really need.

3. In what other category of home computing do we demand complete fidelity to the big-business feature checklist? We don't buy laptops based on their utility in cubicle farms, nor do most people pick out personal-finance software based on its compliance with the latest corporate-accounting rules.

It's a fundamental mistake to treat Office as a standard or a requirement. That attitude is going to force you to overlook a lot of worthwhile ideas bubbling up in other programs--in addition to ensuring a lot more work for yourself. As I concluded at the end of one review of a Microsoft competitor: "When Microsoft Office is your only hammer, pretty much everything begins to look like a nail. Or a thumb."

Disagree with all that? Please fire away in the comments and tell me why I'm wrong.

Meanwhile, after the jump you'll find some other notes about the three Office competitors I tried out.

Google Docs:

* Google's foremost advantage may be its name alone: Most of us are already on this site and have Google accounts registered.

* But I also like what Google's done to make its word processor and spreadsheet simple and accessible to beginners. Keeping only one toolbar visible at a time both cuts down on clutter and helps people focus on one task at a time.

* The version-tracking offered here (click the "Revisions" tab to see older versions of a document) is pretty phenomenal, especially when I compare it to the ugly server-based system we use in The Post newsroom. (Seriously: You. Don't. Want. To. Know.)

* By Google's original forecast, its presentation application should have emerged by now. But it hasn't, and Google rep Chris Ulbrich wouldn't give a newer estimate when I asked this week.

Zoho Office:

* This doesn't feel as polished or as elegant as Google Docs. For example, it doesn't check your spelling in real-time, relies on a more confusing two-toolbar interface and complained when I used an apostrophe in a document's title. I felt I couldn't ignore it because of its presentation application and offline support.

* I tested Zoho's read-only offline word-processing in both Firefox (for Mac OS X and Windows) and Internet Explorer 7 and found no glitches. I was a little surprised by that, given the red-type warning about Google Gears' early-beta status. Zoho publicist Marie Bahl said the company will announce offline editing support in "the next 3-4 weeks," but didn't give a timetable for adding offline mode to other Zoho apps. (Google's Ulbrich wouldn't comment on any plans to soup up Google Docs with Gears' offline support, but you have to think it's coming.)

iWork:

* Considering that Microsoft Office has included a contacts manager, Outlook, for the last decade, Microsoft should be embarrassed at how smarter iWork is at leveraging contacts stored on a Mac. If you create a new resume from one of Word's templates, it includes your name but none of your other contact data; doing so in iWork's Pages word processor yields a resume with your name, street address, phone number and e-mail and Web coordinates pre-filled. Then try adding a list of people to a spreadsheet: Dragging contacts from OS X's Address Book to iWork's Numbers results in a clean list of names, but attempting that trick with Outlook and Excel gives you an unsorted mess of data that demands extensive reformatting.

* Also somewhat mind-boggling: Numbers lets you add checkboxes to a spreadsheet by clicking a button in its toolbar, while doing the same in Excel requires monkeying around in Office's programming dialect. (This feature, combined with the Address Book-to-Numbers drag-and-drop routine, could have saved me hours of work in creating the guest-list spreadsheet for my wedding.)

* Numbers, Pages and Keynote, iWork's slide-show creator, all incorporate some serious graphics wizardry. All three programs include a neat graphics trick called "Instant Alpha" (the name invites some unnecessary confusion to people unfamiliar with the term "alpha compositing") that can make the backgrounds of some images transparent with a few seconds of mousing around. (This graphics prowess seems to depend on some core capabilities of Mac OS X, which probably explains why you need to run the latest release of OS X, Tiger.)

* IWork also offers a strong set of file-export features beyond reading and writing the Microsoft Office formats. Like any other OS X program, it offers PDF export, but it presents this option under an "Export" menu item instead of hiding it in the Print dialog. Keynote throws in the most interesting export options of all: You can save your slide show as an Adobe Flash file, as a movie to play on an iPod and even as a YouTube clip. Somehow, I don't see the last feature showing up in PowerPoint anytime soon.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 13, 2007; 11:37 AM ET
Categories:  Pleasant surprises  
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