Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are the big three of the Microsoft Office Suite and are used on millions of computers every day from the board room to the bedroom. But for even the "home" version of office, expect to pay $125 + shipping or more - unless you have the credentials to pick up the student version, which will still run you $60. But just as for almost every other commercial application on the market, there are free Microsoft Office alternatives that can meet or exceed most users' needs!
These alternatives come in two forms: web-based applications that run in a browser and reside in "the cloud", and full-blown downloadable software that runs on your local computer. In this article, I'll touch on the best examples of both types.
Cloudy with a chance of FREE!
The exact meaning of the term "cloud" in relation to computing varies depending on which salesman is using it at the time, but the general idea is to take advantage of the storage and processing power of large numbers of inexpensive computers via the web. Google doesn't just have a couple of big machines in a server room somewhere - they've got close to nine hundred thousand of them according to one estimate, spread across data centers around the world and all working together to help you find that LOLcat image you saw the other day but just can't remember where.
So now there are "cloud based" office applications - including Microsoft's own (non-free!) "Office 365". What all these programs have in common is that your data is saved securely on the internet, available to you from anywhere. Your files are backed up every time you make a change,and every single revision of every document is kept online for you to refer back to as needed. In some ways it's a perfect insurance policy - copies of your data are stored redundantly in many places - all unreadable by anyone you don't explicitly allow to access it, of course - so barring the collapse of civilization, you'll never permanently lose work due to a hardware problem.
Google Docs is the heavyweight office suite in the cloud-based race because, well, it's from Google. And it's free, unless you're registering as a business that needs 10 or more users. If you've already got a Google mail account, you can get to Google Docs. The Google applications include word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs, along with a drawing tool and a utility for creating forms. They can import documents in many popular formats, though in my experience there's sometimes a loss of some formatting information. One of the interesting features of Google docs is the ability to collaborate in real--time: you can share your documents with other users and watch remotely as they make changes.
An alternative to Google Docs is the Zoho series of web-based office applications. In addition to offering feature-competitive versions of writing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs, Zoho includes applications for project planning, invoicing, customer relations, and more. The main drawback with the Zoho series is that if you need more than 1 gigabyte of storage space, it'll cost you. A gigabyte is a lot for mostly-text documents, though, and the prices to expand start at a reasonable $3 per month.
These browser-based solutions do have limitations, of course. They're not as fully-featured as their traditional counterparts, though they're steadily improving in that respect. You can't very well use them when your internet connection is down. They're limited to the printing capabilities of the browser they're running in (short of downloading the files and opening them in some local program, which kind of defeats the purpose) - and Internet Explorer and its ilk are not exactly famous for their accurate printing.
If you don't need lots of high-quality printed output or all the latest advanced features, the cloud-based solutions may well meet all your needs. If you need something more...
The Office is Open
OpenOffice began its life in the late 90s as a product suite called StarOffice. It was bought by Sun Microsystems and in 2000 was released to the open source world in a bid to chip away a little of Microsoft's stranglehold on the market. It was maintained professionally until 2010 when Oracle bought Sun, and development continues under the auspices of the Apache Software Foundation - the people whose web server product powers more than half the sites on the internet. It's a powerful, mature, full-featured product that runs under Windows, Linux, or the Mac OS.
Try them all!
There's no harm in exploring all these options to see which one best meets your particular needs - after all, they're free!
For another way to save money on commercial software, I 've also written an article about free Photoshop alternatives.