The better Office alternative: SoftMaker Office bests OpenOffice.org

SoftMaker Office 2008 shows superior compatibility with Microsoft Office formats, while OpenOffice.org 3.1 underwhelms

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I could go on quoting examples, but suffice to say that OpenOffice.org 3.1's interoperability features were wholly inadequate. When the application thought it could successfully render an object, it often mangled it beyond recognition. When it became confused by, for example, an unfamiliar chart type or an unsupported configuration parameter, it simply discarded the extraneous data. It's the kind of half-baked file format compatibility that keeps IT personnel awake at night.

Bottom line: OpenOffice.org 3.1 failed to deliver on its promise of better Microsoft Office interoperability. It severely mangled our Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel test data files, and no amount of new features or targeted performance improvements could overcome this critical deficiency. Factor in OpenOffice's other well-documented warts -- buggy Java implementation, CPU-hogging auto-update system, quirky font rendering -- and it's easy to see why the vast majority of IT shops continue to reject this pretender to the Microsoft Office throne.

SoftMaker Office 2009: An underdog with bite
If OpenOffice 3.1 is the overhyped contender with the glass jaw, then SoftMaker Office 2008 is the plucky unknown quietly pounding on a side of beef in some meat locker (sorry, Rocky). Though not as ubiquitous as the free open source community's favorite son, the commercially developed SoftMaker Office has proven itself to be a more viable competitor to Microsoft Office, especially in the low-end PC and mobile computing space. That's because the German company behind the product, SoftMaker GmbH, has made a concerted effort to keep the SoftMaker Office code base lean and mean, while at the same time delivering a remarkable degree of functionality.

[ Compare how OpenOffice.org 3.1 and SoftMaker Office 2008 handled our complex Office documents. ]

The net result is a product that's a fraction of the size of its competitors (just 70MB on disk) and that runs great on underpowered hardware. SoftMaker Office's component applications -- TextMaker, PlanMaker, and  SoftMaker Presentations -- load almost instantly, and each consumes roughly half as much memory as their Microsoft Office equivalents. More importantly, SoftMaker Office demonstrates excellent word processor data file interoperability, including successfully loading, rendering, and saving our Microsoft Word 2003 torture test document.

This is a huge accomplishment for a tiny (17 people) company with limited resources. With its TextMaker application, SoftMaker has achieved what the combined forces of Sun Microsystems and the whole of the free open source community could not: reliably exchanging data files with Microsoft Word. Sadly, the suite's interoperability prowess doesn't extend to Microsoft Excel workbooks. Just as OpenOffice.org 3.1 failed to preserve the complex SQL connection plumbing that was used to drive my test workbook's external data links, SoftMaker's spreadsheet component, PlanMaker, likewise stripped out all of the link parameters. The resulting spreadsheet, though structurally intact, was essentially a collection of static cells. And as with OpenOffice's Calc, any subsequent save operation from within PlanMaker meant that those connection parameters were lost for good.

I belabor this point because, despite the myriad whizz-bang features and nifty timesavers that make up a modern spreadsheet application, it is ultimately a product's ability to access and manipulate business-critical data sets that defines its utility. And in the case of number crunching under Windows, Microsoft has set the bar quite high by incorporating extensive data integration features and encouraging customers to build ever more complex applications that feature Excel as the front end (see "Why is Microsoft Office is so hard to kill?" for more on this).

The SoftMaker folks say they're aware of this and are working to expand PlanMaker's connectivity with future releases. In the meantime, SoftMaker Office 2008 remains an attractive product, especially for IT shops with limited use of external data. Its lightweight architecture and zippy performance on low-end systems make it a good alternative to Microsoft Office in mobile environments. And the inclusion of BasicMaker -- a scripting engine compatible with Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) -- means it's easy for in-house developers to migrate at least some of their custom solutions to the SoftMaker platform. Add to this a modest price point of $79.95 per seat and you begin to see why I believe SoftMaker Office is the hidden gem of the productivity suite category.

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