Many people are already aware of the new free Open Office 2.0 productivity suite, but if you are not I highly recommend taking a look. You can find it at openoffice.org, I am quite impressed with what the team of collaborators around the world has done. The spreadsheet application, presentation tool, and word processor are elegant. I have been using Open Office for years and do not have a copy of Microsoft Office on my ThinkPad. I have not found any significant compatibility problems. If someone sends me a Microsoft Office file, I can open it and use it with no problem. Likewise, I have never had a complaint from someone saying they can’t read the Open Office files I send them and which they can read with Microsoft Office. The compatibility is surely not 100% but it is plenty good enough for me. More importantly I think Open Office is good enough for billions of children in schools around the world. Microsoft has done an incredible job of building their suite of programs, but for 99% of us the vast number of features are more than we can comprehend let alone use.
There are many other office productivity suites out there in addition to Open Office and Microsoft Office. Take a look at Nick Mudge’s list here. The more strategic issue is not which suite to use but the long term compatibility of the data — in other words the format that spreadsheets and other office documents are stored in. This is where OpenDocument Format comes in. As has been written here before, there is nothing to not like about ODF. That is why the 84 member companies of Oasis voted unanimously to adopt the new standard.