OneManOffice: Free Office Suites

A continuing series on free or low-cost tools for the one person office. 

Office suites – not physical offices, but stuff like word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, etc. – are necessary for conducting business.  Microsoft Office dominates this field, but can be expensive ($150 for the most basic package, $400 or more in other incarnations).  Fortunately, there are some excellent free alternatives.

OpenOffice/NeoOffice

OpenOffice is an open-source office suite (NeoOffice is a version for Macs).  It’s similar to Microsoft Office, but 100% free.  If you’re accustomed to using Word or Excel, then it will not take you long to get used to OpenOffice.  

The next two options are both based online – they are great options if you have a good internet connection or need to collaborate with others, but maybe not so great if you are still using dial-up or tend to edit documents while out and about. 

Google Docs

If you have a Google account, then you already have access to Google Docs, their free, online office suite.  Google Docs includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation creator.  Its interface is simple and easy to use.  While it doesn’t include as many options as Microsoft Office or OpenOffice, it will be sufficient for most users. 

Zoho

Zoho is not as well-known as Google Docs, but offers an incredible array of software options.  I use Google Docs because the rest of my team uses it.  However, if I were starting from scratch, I might use Zoho instead.  It offers the same word processor/spreadsheet/presentation trio as Google, and then adds an note taking program, database,  project management, CRM software, online meeting software, invoicing and more.  All of Zoho’s products are free to start using.  The business-oriented products – like CRM, invoiving, project management – start off free, then add fees if you increase your usage.  

Both Google Docs and Zoho are web-based, but Zoho added offline access and syncing in 2007, and Google introduced offline access earlier this year and is in the process of rolling it out to its users. 

Since all of these are free, I actually use a combination of Google Docs and NeoOffice.  When I have documents I need to share with my team, I use Google Docs, but use NeoOffice if I’m editing, say, a Microsoft Word doc or Excel spreadsheet that someone emailed me.  I use Apple’s iWork for presentations and for “nicer” publications (like my prayer letter).  iWork is not free, but is still much cheaper than Microsoft Office ($79, $99 for a family pack to run it on up to 5 computers in the same house).  

OneManOffice: WordPress

I’m starting a new series of posts today, to share some of what I’ve learned about great software for running a low-budget, single-person home office.  They will be grouped together under the category OneManOffice, pending the creation of a catchier, less sexist name.  (Suggestions welcomed here.)  

For the first post in this series, it seemed right to begin with the software that I use to manage this website: WordPress.  There is lots of other software out there that will let you write a blog or manage a website, but I have been very pleased with WordPress.  

What’s so good about it?

  • It’s free.  WordPress is open source software, which means that downloading and installing it is completely, 100% free.  You can either create a free WordPress blog on WordPress.com, or install WordPress on your own website (more on that in just a moment). 
  • It’s easy to use.  WordPress offers a straightforward dashboard for writing new posts and pages.  It was recently updated to version 2.5, which (IMHO) improved the dashboard quite a bit.  If you want to try it out, I would suggest creating a free blog at WordPress.com so that you can get a feel for the software before committing to it.  
  • It’s highly customizable.  WordPress has an enormous community of developers and designers who create themes and plugins for it.  A WordPress theme lets you customize the layout, colors, and overall look of your website, and there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of themes available for free.  (For example, my theme was created by N. Design Studio.)  Plugins let you add new capabilities to your website, like podcasting, stat-tracking, or linking to related content on the web, like I do with my Sphere Related Content plugin. 

Like I said above, there are two options for using WordPress.  The first is free blog hosting at WordPress.com.  If you would like to have your own website (like http://www.mikehickerson.com), you will generally have to pay for it, but the prices are low (e.g. $10/month or less) for a personal website.   We’re not talking CNN.com here, so there’s no reason to pay an arm and a leg. A lot of website hosts will install WordPress for you, and, as long as the hosting company meets the minimum requirements, you could install it yourself.  WordPress provides a list of recommended hosting companies, and there is also a group of WordPress experts who can install WordPress for you.

To keep it easy, I’d recommend finding a web hosting company that provides a “one click install” of WordPress.  It’s just like it sounds: you click a button, and the hosting company does the rest.  I use DreamHost, and I have been very happy with them.  (P.S. If you sign up for DreamHost via this link, I will receive a 10% referral fee for the life of your account.)  But DreamHost is just one of many excellent web hosting companies.  Shop around so that you can find a decent price and the features that you think you’ll use.