Office suite roundup

Word Processor
Image used by permission from rahady, via Creative Commons

Just got this one from a friend:
Which office suite should I use for my small business?
This comes up a lot, primarily because everyone is familiar with Microsoft Office but no one wants to pay for it.  And for good reason: it's very expensive, and most of its functions can be replicated with free software.  That said, the basic answer is this:
If you're asking this, you should probably buy Microsoft Office Home & Business.
At least until the next version comes out.  Who knows what Microsoft will call this suite at that point?  This is the basic professional version, which includes the two things that are not well replicated in free office suites: Excel and Outlook.

Excel (as you no doubt know) is Microsoft's spreadsheet program.  There are other perfectly capable spreadsheet-makers, and we'll get into them a bit later, but the problem of using something other than Excel is that it almost always means switching from Excel, which in turn means learning new functions and shortcuts.  The overhead cost of re-training is always less than the up-front cost of a new copy of Office, although it's less than buying new copies of Office forever.  It's worth it to retrain yourself, but it's probably not worth it to retrain an employee who may not be around in two-three years for the next version.

All of that said, if your needs are basic, or you're willing/able to learn something new, there are some other great choices for you.  Or, if your needs are more complex, you may find moving to another suite makes more sense: Office Home & Business will run you around $200 for a retail copy, but if you need database tools or web-publishing software, Office Professional will be closer to $400-500, and it just goes up from there.

As far as installable client-side software goes, LibreOffice is the current open-source standby, and it's very good.  Its Office-compatibility is nearly perfect, although you will occasionally see formatting issues in very complicated documents.  Its spreadsheet program--Calc--will read Excel files and convert between them and it's own format, but the formula names are often different and this is where the retraining overhead comes in.  It's free, though, so there's very little risk to trying it out to see if it will meet your needs.

If you don't mind a slightly more radical solution, Google Docs is an excellent cloud-based suite, and that comes with some drawbacks (no access to documents that you don't have an offline copy of when the internet is down) and some nifty features (online, simultaneous collaboration with anyone with a Gmail or Google Apps account).  This is another option that's freely available, so it's worth giving it a test drive as well. It's not quite as MS Office-compatible as LibreOffice, but it will get you most of the way there.  It's more than sufficient for standard word processing needs.

What do I use?  Well, I use all of these.  I use Microsoft Office professionally, LibreOffice for personal stuff and Google Docs for the collaboration features and to maintain an online copy of certain documents.  If it were just a little better for compatibility, I'd use Docs almost exclusively, but as is I need to maintain better compatibility with what my clients are using, so most of my work is done in MS Office.