SolutionBase: Selecting the most cost-effective office software for your Mac

Microsoft's done well improving Office compatibility for Mac users with Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac, but does it serve your organization's office software needs? Based on the popular office suite, NeoOffice provides Mac users with a capable alternative to Microsoft Office. Erik Eckel takes a look at what you can do to make the Mac more acceptable in a corporate setting from an application compatibility standpoint.

For a long time, the main argument against using Macs in an organization rather than Windows-based PCs involved compatibility. If Mac users couldn't easily exchange information with Windows clients -- particularly Office files such as Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations -- any advantages gained on the Apple platform were moot. In this article, we'll take a look at what you can do to make the Mac more acceptable in a corporate setting from an application compatibility standpoint.

Office compatibility is key

Microsoft Office made its way to the Mac, of course. Although Microsoft released Microsoft Office 1 for Apple users back in 1990, some compatibility issues remained. Before the rise of the Internet, and the ability to easily e-mail Office files as compatible attachments arrived, sharing files between the two platforms proved difficult. Often, a third-party application was required.

Even with the recent release of Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac and an additional 14 years of development, strange anomalies occasionally arise. Despite the popularity of new Web 2.0 initiatives that simplify and encourage compatibility regardless of client OS, issues still exist. For example, complex Microsoft Excel files don't always display or function 100 percent perfectly in Windows the way they do on the Mac (or vice versa), and some significant differences exist between Microsoft's Windows Outlook e-mail program and the Mac's Entourage counterpart. PDA synchronization and Exchange connectivity are just two examples. However, the vast majority of Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations perform equally well on Macs and Windows systems, and Entourage has proven to be a worthy Outlook option on the Apple.

Microsoft's done well improving Office compatibility for Mac users. Experiences are almost universally consistent opening, editing, and printing the same file on both platforms. Best of all, whether Apple users select PowerPC- or Intel-powered Macintosh machines, Microsoft provides an Office platform to meet their needs. This is true whether Intel-powered Mac users choose to load Windows on their Apples or not; also, in late 2007, Microsoft will release Office 2008 for Mac users, thereby ensuring Apple systems receive access to the same new streamlined user interface and new XML-based file formats sure to revolutionize Office productivity software.

The real question, however, is whether Mac users require Microsoft Office.

NeoOffice: An open source alternative

Based on the popular office suite, NeoOffice provides Mac users with a capable alternative to Microsoft Office. Better yet, the office productivity suite, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet, slideshow, and drawing applications, is distributed free under General Public License. The software is also available in several languages, including Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

The goal of the NeoOffice project, which is led by Patrick Luby and Edward Peterlin, is to build a "reasonably stable version" of the tools that works well on Mac OS X. Volunteerism, both on Luby's and Peterlin's part, powers the project. As a result, contributions and refinements are often the result of charitable efforts others (including well-intended developers) make to the project.

Therefore, NeoOffice development works much like that of other open source applications. As bugs are found, users are encouraged to submit patches. Further, the team leverages Bugzilla to organize bug reports and repairs from abroad. As additional functionality is requested, the team solicits donations to fund development of the new features (such as adding native Mac OS X spellchecker support).

Meanwhile, NeoOffice also leverages robust Wikis and online forums to keep users and contributing developers abreast of updates, new patches, changes, and fixes. Currently, NeoOffice is distributing version 2.1. Donations are requested, prior to downloading the office suite, but they are not required.

Running NeoOffice

To run NeoOffice, users must possess an Apple computer (versions are available for both PowerPC and Intel models) running Mac OS X (version 10.3 or higher), 512 MB of memory and at least 400 MB of free disk space. The download file itself is relatively compact, measuring just 139 MB.

Once loaded, NeoOffice proves a capable alternative to Microsoft Office. In addition to proving compatible with older versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, the open source alternative also enables opening, editing, and saving Microsoft Office 2007 Word-formatted files, and now supports Excel macros.

Original, earlier versions of NeoOffice shipped as NeoOffice/J. Since the first versions were released, significant improvements have been made in compatibility and performance. Users who may have experimented with earlier versions owe it to themselves to download and test version 2.1.

Microsoft Office vs. NeoOffice: A performance comparison

The NeoOffice build team claims that text layout and drawing speed are two to two-and-a-half times faster when using version 2.1 with the latest patches. In addition, the program now uses less CPU cycles and completes print operations more quickly.

Nevertheless, Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac still outperforms the open source upstart. In fact, the two applications aren't even close when it comes to speed.

In my informal tests, conducted on a Mac OS X Tiger (version 10.4)-powered G4 PowerBook using the latest NeoOffice performance patches, Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac proved definitively faster. For example, initially opening Microsoft Word and Excel required only nine seconds. In other words, the first time I opened Word or Excel following a reboot, the application required only nine seconds to fully complete loading. NeoOffice, on the other hand, required 32 seconds to fully load.

Secondary loads -- or the time required to start Word or Excel a second time after originally having opened and closed the application -- required only two seconds. Secondary loads of NeoOffice, however, consumed 18 seconds.

Microsoft Office uses fewer resources, too. For example, opening a basic spreadsheet in Excel prompts Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac to establish seven CPU threads, while consuming 0.3% of CPU capacity, 35.35 MB of RAM, and 322.54 MB of virtual memory. Opening a massive (400-page) Word document within Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac, meanwhile, established seven CPU threads and consumed 1.2 percent of CPU capacity, 46.43 MB of RAM, and 381.36 MB of virtual memory.

NeoOffice, opening the same identical files, doesn't compare favorably. Opening the Excel file prompted NeoOffice to establish 18 threads to the CPU, while consuming .1% of CPU capacity, 99 MB of RAM, and 1.15 GB of virtual memory. Upon opening the Word file, NeoOffice established 18 threads to the CPU and consumed .1% of CPU capacity, 170.33 MB of RAM, and 1.15GB of virtual memory. Figure A shows some of the results of my informal testing.

Figure A

Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac easily outperforms NeoOffice Version 2.1, even with the latest NeoOffice performance patches loaded.

Thus, informal tests demonstrate just how much more efficient Microsoft Office operates. Does that mean business and even residential or small office users should avoid NeoOffice, though? Definitely not.

NeoOffice provides a capable alternative to Microsoft Office. Organizations that are particularly budget-conscious will find NeoOffice an effective substitute. If users can spare an extra 15 seconds a day waiting for NeoOffice to initially load, they'll find the application quite capable of providing functionality and compatibility comparable to Microsoft Office.

Cost comparison

Considering that the average retail price for a full version of Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac runs $399.99 per desktop, it's easy to see how a small business with 15 employees could easily free $6,000 in the technology budget: Convert systems to NeoOffice.

Ultimately, as in the past, the issue should be determined based on compatibility. NeoOffice is an open source, volunteer-led initiative; bugs will inevitably be found, and the software won't always work perfectly. Thus, costs must be measured not only in dollar amounts, but also in employee time. While opting for NeoOffice might enable an organization to save on licensing costs, if employees must regularly reformat or otherwise rework files due to incompatibilities, choosing the open source alternative won't prove the most cost-effective decision in the long run.

When using Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac, compatibility issues are less likely to occur, especially when sharing complex documents or spreadsheets between the Mac and Windows platforms.


In all likelihood, organizations deploying Apple computers won't be pressed for cash, so companies that require complete compatibility when using intricate and complex Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations should opt for Microsoft Office for Mac.

Other organizations that typically share only basic Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, however, will find NeoOffice a capable alternative. In choosing the open source platform, funds that would otherwise have been dedicated to purchasing Microsoft licenses can easily be diverted to helping fund NeoOffice performance improvements and purchasing additional memory for existing Macs, thereby enabling a smoother NeoOffice experience.