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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As of this writing, SoftMaker was preparing its next-generation suite, SoftMaker Office 2009. The product was still in beta at press time, but my limited experience with an early build left me impressed by the development direction. For starters, SoftMaker Office 2009 will support importing data files from Office 2007 in its native Open XML format. And from what I could glean while experimenting with the beta code, the process works far better than under OpenOffice.

For example, TextMaker 2009, which successfully imported and rendered my Word 2007 test document, included virtually all of the inline charts and drawings. SoftMaker plans to provide similar support for Microsoft Excel 2007 workbooks (but still no external data access) and PowerPoint 2007 presentations, in addition to introducing its first foray into the client database category with its new DataMaker 2009 product, essentially a Microsoft Access work-alike.

[ See the sidebars to this review: Office-compatibility torture test | The many faces of OpenOffice | Why is Microsoft Office so hard to kill? ]

Bottom line: SoftMaker Office shows that good things often still come in small packages. The product's compact footprint and low overhead make it ideal for underpowered systems, and its excellent compatibility with Office 2003 file formats means it's a safe choice for heterogeneous environments where external data access isn't a priority. With a promising beta release just around the corner, SoftMaker's star is definitely on the rise.

King of the hill
Microsoft Office has been king of the desktop productivity hill for decades now, and its reign shows no sign of nearing an end (see my preview of Microsoft Office 2010). For users who need only the most basic compatibility with Office formats, a number of offerings (SaaS apps from Google and Zoho, as well as IBM Lotus Symphony, and other OpenOffice variants, and OpenOffice.org and SoftMaker Office of course) may do the trick. But for shops needing deeper compatibility with Microsoft Office -- to support complex documents, macros, and back-end links -- there's still no substitute.

Frankly, from Microsoft's perspective, the danger may have been overstated. Though the free open source crowd talks a good fight, the truth is that they keep missing the real target. Instead of investing in new features that nobody will use, the team behind OpenOffice should take a page from the SoftMaker playbook and focus on interoperability first. Until OpenOffice works out its import/export filter issues, it'll never be taken seriously as a Microsoft alternative.

More troubling (for Microsoft) is the challenge from the SoftMaker camp. These folks have gotten the file-format compatibility issue licked, and this gives them the freedom to focus on building out their product's already respectable feature set. I wouldn't be surprised if SoftMaker got gobbled up by a major enterprise player in the near, thus creating a viable third way for IT shops seeking to kick the Redmond habit.

In the meantime, Microsoft's position atop the desktop productivity heap remains secure. If anything, OpenOffice's latest failure bolsters the behemoth's seemingly unassailable position. And now we have Office 2010 making an appearance (albeit unofficially), and it seems to have addressed many of the remaining usability and integration complaints. Add it all up and it translates into what should be a long, uninterrupted reign for the royal Redmondians.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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