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Abandon the sinking Office 2003 ship by jumping on board an alternative office suite

With the end of support for Microsoft Office 2003 quickly approaching, you have several upgrade options. Andy Wolber takes a look at some good office suite alternatives.

 

Office 2003 upgrade options
 

Microsoft support for Office 2003 ends in April 2014. Your 2003 version of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will continue to work, but they'll no longer be updated. Any future flaws found will remain unfixed, so I strongly recommend that you switch to an actively maintained software suite.

Your upgrade options include several office suites: LibreOffice, Office 2013, Office Web Apps, Office 365, iWork, or Google Apps. Each of these suites includes an app to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, and each of the suites can import Office 2003 files. However, complex files may not import with 100% accuracy into any new system.

The applications, services, and pricing of the newer suites differs from Office 2003. Application offerings vary: Microsoft doesn't offer web versions of Publisher or Access, although web alternatives exist. Office 365 and Google Apps offer services that weren't available in 2003, such as hosted email for your domain (e.g., you@yourcompany.com). And many people find low on-going subscription pricing more attractive than high one-time purchase pricing. Free software — and software offered with the purchase of new equipment — also complicates the decision-making process.

The chart below (Figure A) summarizes the applications, services, and pricing of these newer suites compared to Office 2003. However, I realize the chart omits many subtleties, and that many other alternative solutions exist.

Figure A

 

Figure A
 

Here are a few upgrade options for people still using Office 2003 when support ends in April 2014.

If you haven't yet upgraded from Office 2003 to a newer suite, here's my take on a few alternatives.

1. LibreOffice.org: A (mostly) drop-in equivalent for the core apps

If you prefer installed software and just need the core word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps, LibreOffice might be the simplest — and least expensive — option. LibreOffice offers an extremely solid suite built on an open-source code base, which means it is free and freely distributable.

Figure B

 

Figure B
 

LibreOffice might be the cheapest and easiest replacement for basic Office 2003 needs.

You can simply download and install it from LibreOffice.org. (In enterprise environments, you can "centrally manage and lock down the configuration with Group Policy Objects via Active Directory.") Recent releases have improved Office file compatibility. Many Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents import and open with no problems. LibreOffice does have a database, called "Base," but you can't just import a Microsoft Access file and continue work.

The LibreOffice user interface resembles Office 2003 more than any other alternative listed here. For basic document users seeking minimal change, LibreOffice works.

2. Office Professional 2013: Replacement with a new interface

Office Professional 2013 provides the most complete software replacement for Office 2003 from Microsoft. All the apps are there, but with a significantly changed interface. People moving to 2013 from 2003 should allow some time to learn the new user interface. Also, the full retail cost of Office Professional 2013 is just under $400. (Volume corporate licensing will be less, of course.) Subscription alternatives may be worth a look.

Figure C

 

Figure C
 

Microsoft Office Professional 2013.

Office 2013 has a clean look, but as of February 2014, not all Office 2013 installed apps have Office Web App equivalents.

A note about Microsoft Access alternatives

In the long term, if you have an Access 2003 database, you'd be well served to do a thorough migration project: build, buy, or subscribe to a new database system. I recommend this course of action regardless of which suite you select. If you use Access 2003, you have a database selection project to complete before April 2014.

3. Office Web Apps: Core functions of the core apps in a browser, free

If you only rarely use basic features of Microsoft Office, you might simply uninstall Office 2003 and just use Office Web Apps. Go to SkyDrive.com (soon to be renamed OneDrive.com), and login to access browser versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Outlook.com can be configured to receive email for a custom domain. For more info, see Ed Bott's article, "Why I use Outlook.com for my custom email accounts (and how you can too)." For people seeking a free alternative to the no-longer-available free version of Google Apps, this is about as close a solution I've found.

A note about Microsoft Publisher alternatives

As of February 2014, Microsoft doesn't offer a web-based version of Microsoft Publisher. The best web-based alternative to Microsoft Publisher I've found is Lucidpress (see my prior article, "Desktop publishing from the browser"). An open-source, installed software alternative is Scribus.

4. Office 365 Small Business Premium: Domain mail with web apps (an upgrade for more)

Office 365 offers enterprise domain email services, combined with access to Microsoft's full suite of installed and web apps. If you can afford it, this is the most comprehensive upgrade option. You get all the installed apps along with hosted email and web services. The only concern may be cost: Office 365 operates on a subscription model. A subscription that includes the full-installed version of Office apps will cost around $150 per user, per year.

5. iWork: New operating system, new suite

For single users — or very small groups of users — moving to the Mac and/or iOS world may be worth a look. Apple provides the iWork suite of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote free with all new systems running the Mavericks (or later) operating system. While this move won't be viable for many organizations, it might work for individuals already using iOS devices: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote work on both iOS and Mac.

Figure D

Figure D
Apple's iWork suite is free with newly purchased Mac and iOS devices.

6. Google Apps: Domain mail with web apps (extend with the Marketplace)

Google Apps offers enterprise domain email services, combined with access to Google's full suite of web apps: Gmail, Google Calendar, Drive (Docs, Sheets, and Slides), Sites, Groups, Google+, Hangouts, and more. Scott Matteson provided an excellent detailed write-up comparing Microsoft and Google's offerings in his post, "10 comparisons between Google Apps and Office 365." A Google Apps subscription costs $50 per user, per year.

Figure E

Figure E
Google Apps provides native web apps that work best in Chrome.

A note about App Marketplaces

Both Google Apps and Microsoft Office offer app marketplaces. However, the Google Apps Platform has been available much longer and has more meaningful app integrations. For example, I use two apps, MindMeister and Lucidpress, connected via the Google Apps Marketplace. I access each with my Google Apps login. In one case, I export a MindMeister mindmap to a Google Drive document in an outline format. In the other, I fill a text area in a Lucidpress page layout with content from a Google Drive document. Google Apps is designed for the web world, where applications can push and pull information (with permission) across application boundaries.

Choose your future carefully before you upgrade

The end of life of Office 2003 offers a chance to rethink the tools you use. 

The simplest upgrade path for Office 2003 may be to use LibreOffice, because the interface presents minimal change, the feature set closely matches Office 2003, and it's free.

The obvious upgrade path may be to Office 365 Small Business Premium (or similar enterprise options). This provides familiar installed desktop tools, alongside web alternatives, with hosted email services. But Microsoft's Web Apps presently lack robust access to APIs: data in web documents remains isolated.

By moving to Google Apps from Office 2003, you gain hosted email services, along with all of Google's native web apps and access to the Google Apps Platform. The switch undoubtedly involves time to migrate documents and learn new tools. But the difference is that you'll be in a web-native world, where you have the flexibility to choose — or build — web tools if needed.

The choice is yours. Which upgrade path has your organization chosen? Share your experience and thoughts in the discussion thread below.

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About

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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