Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Portable Apps: OpenOffice as an Alternative to Microsoft Office

I was in the process of assembling a set of portable applications to run in Windows XP.  After some investigation and experimentation, I concluded that there was not presently a solid, affordable way of making a portable version of my copy of Microsoft Office 2003.  Since I did want office-type programs in my set of portable apps, I decided to look into alternatives to Office.

One alternative, of course, was to upgrade to a more recent version of Microsoft Office.  In the case of Office 2010, there were (as with Office 2003) various offers of free downloads of a portable version.  Some of these offers seemed to be related to an offer of a free trial that Microsoft had floated in 2009.  Others were apparently pirated versions, typically with little explanation of how the portability had been achieved.  I did not investigate the question of how well these copies would work.

Since acquiring Softricity, Microsoft itself had moved toward developing application virtualization for purposes of facilitating enterprise software installation.  Of course, that was a long way from setting up Office to run from a USB stick.  At this writing, Microsoft's concept of portability was oriented toward portable devices (e.g., phones, laptops).  Office 2010 did come with "portable device rights" in this sense.  There did seem to be one way to install Office 2010 on a USB drive with Microsoft's blessing, more or less:  obtain and install Office 2010 Starter Edition, and then install Starter Edition on a USB drive.  Starter Edition was adware; it replaced Microsoft Works; it consisted solely of limited versions of Word 2010 and Excel 2010; and it was officially available only a preloaded software on purchased computers.  There were ways to download it otherwise.

I had several reasons for not choosing the Microsoft option.  Those reasons included a need for some advanced features, a need for the ability to work with other kinds of files, especially via PowerPoint and Access, a desire to avoid the distraction of adware, and a preference for not being dependent upon Microsoft.  This was not to say that I would avoid using Office 2010 altogether.  I just wanted something that would work effectively on a USB drive.

Another alternative to Office 2010 was to move away from Microsoft altogether, to the extent possible.  There were several apparently significant alternatives to choose from.  The most popular still seemed to be OpenOffice.  The OpenOffice suite continued to have the advantage of being usable on multiple platforms -- so that, for instance, I could still get into a file, via Ubuntu Live CD (or dual boot, or virtual underlayer), even when Microsoft Windows or Office became completely nonfunctional.  OpenOffice also included programs that would work with those varieties of files just mentioned (i.e., Access databases, PowerPoint presentations).

One question, for me, was whether OpenOffice would display the relatively unrefined kind of interface and functionality that had recently prompted me, despite myself, to lean back toward using Windows rather than Ubuntu applications (even if I was doing so primarily in Windows running within a VMware virtual machine on Ubuntu).  If I had ever used OpenOffice in Windows, it had been a long time ago; in recent years I had only used it in Ubuntu, and very infrequently at that.  So now I took another look.  I did a brief trial run of OpenOffice Writer Portable for Windows, running from a hard drive, just to sample its look and feel.  Preliminarily, it looked and felt good -- noticeably better and more familiar than the Ubuntu version, though no doubt the two actually functioned pretty much the same.  On this basis, I decided to go ahead with some efforts toward using OOo (as they call it, short for Writer more frequently.

Portability, another question, was a no-brainer.  The version that I had just sampled was part of the standard suite.  The concept was that I would set up my full portable suite on the hard drive, so as to avoid having to install programs whenever I set up a new computer or virtual machine, and then I would copy that folder of portable apps to the USB flash drive when I needed to take those tools on the road -- with my laptop or to someone else's computer.  With this concept in mind, I returned to my effort to come up with a good set of portable applications for Windows XP.