The best option for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) essentially boils down to assessing needs, learning about open source software, and determining whether there is in-house expertise or the budget to pay for outside help.
Price. This is the easiest one to compare. Microsoft Office Small Business 2007 costs $449.95 (estimated retail price, according to Microsoft's Web site). Upgrading an earlier version to Microsoft Office SMB 2007 will cost you $279, and it will cost even more each time you upgrade.
OpenOffice, on the other hand, is free and so are its upgrades.
Functionality. This issue is a bit trickier because these suites (as with all office suites) are not identical. The best way to compare Microsoft Office and OpenOffice on this front is to focus on the most-used applications: word processor, spreadsheet, email and calendaring.
Word processor. Microsoft Word has a lot of advanced features that OpenOffice's Writer lacks, such as Smart Tags, highly flexible outlining and smart table formatting. Also, Writer has no grammar checker (it has a plug-in, LanguageTool, but it doesn't match the functionality of Word). On the flip side, Writer is simpler than Word, which many people find too complex.
Email and calendaring. OpenOffice lacks email and calendar capabilities. However, OpenOffice is compatible with open source applications such as Mozilla's Thunderbird (email) and Sunbird (calendar). While Thunderbird is pretty good, Sunbird is still a very immature product and not in the same league as Microsoft Outlook for simplicity and usability.
Outlook does a great job of combining an email client with a calendar application and a to-do list, which Thunderbird just can't match. Outlook's integration with Word also gives users Microsoft's spelling- and grammar-checking capabilities.
Winner: Microsoft Office
Support for OpenOffice is not as plentiful, but it is free. The support that is available is community-driven and mostly found in open source discussion forums led by volunteers. You can also get information from OpenOffice.org. On the negative side, open source forums tend to cater to developers and techies, not average users.
You also need to consider how easily (or not-so-easily) your IT staff can manage these suites in-house, given that they often lack sufficient IT resources. Clearly, the Microsoft product is superficially easier to manage as support is easy (although not free) to obtain. The question SMBs need to ask might be: Which product will cost more in dollars and staff headaches to support?
Licensing. Microsoft has not made billions of dollars by giving away its software, that's for sure. If you buy Microsoft Office, you can install it on only a specified number of computers. OpenOffice has much looser licensing rules, that is to say, very few of them. You can share unlimited copies with employees and business partners.
Interoperability. Surprisingly, the suites are highly interoperable with one another. Each can read files created by the other, while OpenOffice can also write files in Microsoft formats. OpenOffice even allows users to automatically save files in Microsoft formats by default.
Ultimately, both suites perform very similar tasks, though Microsoft Office is the more complete solution. OpenOffice, however, is free and does not lock you into either tight licensing rules or a costly upgrade path. Microsoft Office is easier to support but likely to be more expensive in this regard.
Which you choose hinges on whether you want to spend money on software and whether you have in-house IT personnel who are willing to delve into the world of open source.
Herman Mehling is a freelance writer based in San Anselmo, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was first published in November 2007