A Word by any other name? Microsoft Word, that is.

There was a time in the not so distant past when every place of business and home office needed to purchase Microsoft Office as one of the required costs of doing business. The scene has changed a bit. There are low cost alternatives now that compete with Microsoft Office.

The competitive products have led to changes in Microsoft. In a few months, new PCs will come equipped with a completely free version of Microsoft Works. And it’s not a 30-day trial. It will stay free and continue to work. The catch? Ads. There will be a small ad at the bottom of your pages. You can still buy the ad-free version, too, of course.

If you’re a Mac user, you know there’s a version of Office for Mac. I don’t know if Mac owners will be given the option to use the ad-supported free version when the new Office for Mac is finally released. Microsoft is supposed to have its new version for Mac ready by the Mac World conference next January. We should find out more then.

What about the competition?

There’s an open source product suite called Open Office. It’s completely free. It looks and behaves very much like Microsoft Office, so there’s not much of a learning curve involved if you switch to it. It works on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The suite includes a word processing app, a presentation app, a math function creator, a vector drawing tool, a spreadsheet app and a database app. The documents you create with Open Office can be used without a hitch by coworkers or folks in other locations who are using Microsoft products.

Google is offering both online word processor and spreadsheet apps free at Google Apps. With Google, everything is stored online, so you can get to your documents from any computer. Depending on what you do, this might provide you with a way to get some work done while you’re away from the office without dragging a heavy computer around with you. It might be a very attractive idea if you are running out of room on your hard drive and need storage space somewhere else for your documents.

At only $69.95, Star Office from Sun Microsystems is also running strong as a competitor. Star Office includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, database capabilities, PDF exporting, and compatibility with Microsoft Office documents. Star Office is only for people running Microsoft Windows, Linux, Sun Solaris SPARC, or Sun Solaris x86 Platform Editions. (The Sun site talks about requiring Intel based processors, but doesn’t mention the new Mac OS X Intel based machines, so I assume it won’t work on a Mac.)

In summary, Microsoft’s office tools are still the standard that all others are measured against, but they are no longer the only game in town. Other choices may work as well and fit your budget better.

Cross posted at BlogHer

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