GEEK: Selecting Microsoft alternatives depends on user end goal

Q: I have 3 desktops and 2 laptops. I do a lot of newsletters and journals for several organizations I support and have used Microsoft Word for years. It fits my needs and style perfectly and has the capabilities I need (multiple columns, varying fonts, varying line spacing, ease of placing photos and graphics in the text, etc.)

Your column on Microsoft retiring software (Geek Note: I.G.T.M. #550, Feb 4, 2018) got me worrying. I have Office 2007 on one computer, 2010 on two of them, and 2013 on another. I just bought the second laptop and hate the idea of renting Word to put on it. Too, the age of my other copies of Office worries me after reading about Microsoft stopping support of their software after 10 years. I’m thinking about biting the bullet and switching to Libre Office, WPS Office Free, Google Docs, or some other alternative. None apparently will perfectly convert my current Word documents but I’m hoping to choose one of the “free” ones and try to learn it as well as I have Word. I also use Excel and PowerPoint but not nearly as much as Word. Anyway, thanks for your columns. I enjoy reading them.

– James Y.

Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A: I’m always happy to hear from my readers, James. You bring up something to which many people never give much thought; that is, alternatives to Microsoft products. There are low cost/no cost alternatives to just about everything that Microsoft sells. It all depends on what you want to do with your system, and how much time you want to put into configuring and maintaining it. Microsoft products are mostly self-configuring, and they run well in stable environments, while many 3rd-party products require you to have intimate knowledge of your system. For many, that may be too steep of a trade-off.

The knee-jerk reaction of many people desiring to get away from Microsoft products is to switch platforms to Apple. Well, newsflash! Many Microsoft products – including Windows – run on Mac computers also. Now, if you like Apple, that’s fine – I’m not advocating switching to PCs. However, there’s no reason to abandon the PC platform just because one wants to show Microsoft the door.

Let’s start at the top, with Windows. The operating system is the fundamental piece of software that allows a human to interact with the machine. From the human perspective, it provides the look and feel, the “experience” if you will, of operating the machine. From the computer side, it provides access to the hardware, including all the features of the motherboard and CPU, as well as any peripheral devices connected, up to and including managing the device’s Internet connection. Windows is the defacto standard for all these functions, but there are plenty of free operating systems out there. The most popular is Linux, which comes in several perturbations from various vendors. It does what Windows does; that is, provides a mouse-driven graphical user interface for the user, and connectivity for hardware. The downside? Hardware is not as universally supported in Linux as it is in Windows. Also, Linux doesn’t run Windows applications. You must run software designed for Linux.

Which brings us to your issue, James. As you pointed out, there are several alternatives, not just to Word, but to the entire MS Office suite. They are mostly compatible with Office files, but that little portion that’s incompatible might be a deal-breaker for some. I have a personal example. I once loaded a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet onto an ultra-portable laptop so I could work on some things while travelling. That laptop was equipped with a free Office-style suite. The file imported well, with all the colorizations and subtleties of formulas intact. I did all my work on the road, and upon returning, tried to export it back out to load into the “real” Excel, but many of the features wouldn’t translate back. I wound up having to manually re-enter a lot of things, working with two laptops side by side. Now, if you’re committing into that “alternative” Office product, scenarios like this wouldn’t be an issue, because it’s always going to be compatible with itself. However, you could run into issues if you have to exchange files with someone running Microsoft products. Besides Office, there are alternatives (often free) to most commercially sold products, including Web browsers, and software to process/play media, such as pictures, music and video.

As I said above, it all depends on what you want to do with your computer. More and more is being done in the cloud these days, and all that’s required is a means to get online. A computer, running a non-Microsoft operating system, and a non-Microsoft browser should be able to accomplish this perfectly well. Many people tell me all they use their computer for is for e-mail, social media and web browsing. All that could be done for free. If you’re interested in seeing what’s out there, just Google “alternatives to Windows”.