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Compare Office 365 vs. Office 2013 before going open source

Organizations can save money and management hassles by comparing Office 365 vs. Office 2013 and then checking each against open source alternatives.

Enterprises that have not already embraced Office 2013 Professional are considering other options to reduce expenses and increase productivity. In many cases, they're looking to Office 365 vs. Office 2013 because of its lower upfront costs, extended level of services and compatibility with the on-premises version of Office.

Other organizations are considering a more radical departure from the ubiquitous Microsoft product by turning to open source suites such as LibreOffice and OpenOffice, which are easy to install, simple to use and, best of all, free.

Each alternative has its advantages and disadvantages. Even Office 2013 might prove the best choice for some organizations. Let's start by comparing various productivity suite options and address some of the factors to take into account when deciding which one to use.

Office 365 vs. Office 2013

Office 365 delivers the traditional Office suite as a subscription service that can be accessed either through the local client applications or via a browser, depending on the service level. Microsoft currently offers six Office 365 plans targeted at business, with subscription rates ranging from $8 to $20 per user, per month.

In addition to the usual core components of Office Professional -- Word, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access -- Office 365 also includes a number of services and features that are not part of the desktop suite.

For example, most of the plans let users install the full set of Office applications on up to five PCs or Macs, with the proviso that Mac OS doesn't support Publisher or Access, just like its Office 2011 counterpart. Users can also install Office client apps on up to five tablets and five smartphones. An Office 2013 license permits only one installation on a single PC or Mac.

In addition, all Office 365 business plans provide up to 1 TB of integrated OneDrive storage per user, and most of those plans include social networks, unlimited online meetings and team intranet sites.

Office 365 for business also bundles Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online while providing automatic updates that incorporate security updates, bug fixes and new features across all the services.

Despite all the extras that come with Office 365, it does have its downsides. For instance, incorporating non-Office users into the document workflow can be difficult, and OneDrive synchronization is still a bit buggy. Adding files to a synced local drive, for example, doesn't always guarantee that OneDrive will properly sync them.

Adopting Office 365 can put businesses and their users at the mercy of Microsoft's maintenance schedules. Office apps can be updated without warning, sometimes introducing bugs, changing how features work or breaking in-house systems.

A subscription service can also end up being more costly in the long run than an on-premises setup, depending on an organization's existing infrastructure and number of users. Although Office 365 comes with relatively low upfront costs, subscription fees are an ongoing expense that continues long after the software is paid for. Organizations considering a choice between Office 2013 and Office 365 should first perform a careful, long-range cost analysis.

Open source vs. Office 2013

A more promising way to reduce spending might be an open source solution. Not only can businesses save in licensing fees, but they can also modify the source code to meet specific organizational needs.

The two most popular open-source office suites available today are LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice. Both products share a common ancestry in the StarOffice suite, which was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999. Soon after, Sun open-sourced the software and dubbed it

When Oracle acquired Sun in 2011, the company renamed the product and then discontinued it. To counter this situation, a group of developers forked off the code and created LibreOffice. Soon after, Oracle handed over to Apache, giving us two branches: LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice.

Although the two efforts took off in their own directions, they continue to share much of the same code base and deliver the same application types: word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, database and math equation editor. The interfaces are very similar, and the differences can be difficult to discern, even when they're opened side by side.

Users can perform most of the same basic tasks in the open source suites that they can in Office 2013: creating and editing documents; importing and exporting them to and from different formats; and adding tables, images and other elements. They can also insert comments and run macros.

As expected, Office 2013 provides a more sophisticated, streamlined and polished environment, yet OpenOffice and LibreOffice are surprisingly robust and support a wide range of formatting, editing and viewing options to help workers stay productive. And for some, the simpler interfaces are a welcome relief.

The best part about OpenOffice and LibreOffice is that they're totally free. Even if they can't compete with Office 2013 on a feature-by-feature basis, they still have plenty to offer. They're simple to install and provide benefits not available with Office 2013, such as the ability to run on Linux.

Plus, the editions available to Windows, Mac OS and Linux are comparable, unlike Office, which lets the Mac version lag behind its Windows counterpart. In fact, OpenOffice and LibreOffice will run on Windows XP and Vista, something even Office 2013 can't do.

In my next article, we'll look at how open source suites compare with Office 365 and how OpenOffice stacks up against LibreOffice.

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