Do I Really Need Microsoft Office at Home?

Your company uses MS Office as its main document software, maybe you’re studying at a FET College or similar institution where the course is based on a specific version of MS Office, or maybe you want to just type letters, recipes, etc at home. So the question is do you need to purchase MS Office at a cost of about R1,800 or more?

Well in most cases the answer is actually NO you do not need to buy it at all…. let’s look at it on a case by case basis (and I can expand on this as more use cases arise):

  • Compatibility with company – in most cases this is not needed at all (or should not be). In the first instance South Africa, as in many companies, our SA Bureau of Standards has set the national document interchange standard as SANS 26300:2008/ISO/IEC 26300:2006 Information technology – Open Document Format forOffice Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0. This means that no matter what software we use, these programs should be saving our documents in this international standard format so that any other program can open and edit it.  OK this is not yet quite the reality…. but imagine if and when it is, as costs of software would plummet and you could choose whatever software program suited you best. The whole point of having standards is that we can choose what we want to use, and we can all exchange information using the same standard much like an ISO 35mm film would fit in any 35mm camera and not just in a Leika, or a SD card would fit in any digital camera today with an SD card slot. Imagine a world without open standards! Now you also know why, where so many companies use the MS Office format, why it would not be good for some software companies if we could all switch so easily. But in reality, there are software programs like OpenOffice and LibreOffice that both read and write MS Office file formats quite well.  They look much like MS Office 2003. I have been using OpenOffice in my own work environment for the last year, and been exchanging wordprocessing and spreadsheet files with the rest of my team and with clients who are still using MS Office. So in most cases you should not need to buy MS Office at home to work with work files.
  • College Studies – this is a more difficult one as the syllabus is often very specific to a particular version of MS Office. Some years ago I went on a project management course at the University of Stellenbosch and the impressive thing is we never touched a piece of software – it was all project management concepts such as resource scheduling, GANTT charts, forward pass scheduling, etc. Point is you could apply these concepts using any software. The same ideal should be applied for wordprocessing and spreadsheets by teaching the concepts of mail merge, margins, etc.  The learner could apply this to any software they worked on. For Software Freedom Day 2009 I posted this letter and also e-mailed it to Northlink FET College – never received a reply or an acknowledgement but I had heard it was referred to their IT manager to comment on….. So the answer is where the syllabus is generic and concept based you could well use an alternative software package (free) but where it is specific you would have to obtain (buy) that package.
  • Typing Letters at Home – well here you could use anything that does the job and quite easily LibreOffice and OpenOffice will work fine. Whether you need spell checking, a table of contents or index, columns, tables, or anything else and its completely free. You can save and send your documents either in ODF format, or MS Office, or even Acrobat PDF format. If you wanted to share your documents online you could even use Google Documents and share them as read-only or editable with friends and colleagues.

So, in summary, my advice really is…. try the free versions and see if you can do what you need to do before buying proprietary software. This is a far better and legal alternative to illegally pirating proprietary software. The quicker international and national standards are rigorously applied the better for all as well, as this issue will largely become something of the past and anyone can choose their favourite document package and exchange documents with other users.