How did such expensive and bug ridden software get to be the standard office productivity suite? Microsoft accomplished something that had eluded other software providers. Microsoft created a highly integrated suite of products that had a similar look and feel and they got the job done. The original license terms were attractive for businesses. The license was based on concurrent usage. Companies could install a server copy and they only had to pay for the maximum number of copies of the software that were in use simultaneously. By the time Microsoft eliminated the concurrent licensing, their software was well entrenched in the business mainstream.
With Microsoft tightening the license terms even more, the cost of using Microsoft Office has become more than many businesses wish to tolerate. There have been free alternatives to Microsoft Office for some time, but now, it's not only home users that have become interested. Microsoft stands to lose significant business accounts to the ever maturing free or inexpensive offerings.
StarOffice is one of the better known free office suites. Version 5.2 has won over many individuals and some businesses. Sun, who now controls the StarOffice code, still offers version 5.2 for free. Version 6 is going to carry a price tag, but it will be much less than that of Microsoft Office. Sun believes that more businesses will be interested in an inexpensive version with support, than in the free version. As ironic as that sounds, they are probably correct. Businesses generally have avoided free software because they fear that it won't be supported in the long term.
Even though Sun is going to charge for StarOffice version 6, they have still provided a means for a version 6 level product to be available free. Sun has provided most of the StarOffice code base to OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice.org is both the name of the group coordinating the development, and of the software product that has resulted from their efforts. OpenOffice.org runs on Windows, Linux, Solaris, and soon will be available for the Mac.
There are a number of other office suites available. I've created a list of these Free Office Suites. Since they are all free, you can download your choice and give it a try. All of the downloads are large, so if you have a slow Internet connection, you might want to ask a friend with broadband to do the download for you and burn it to CD. All the products listed provide applications that are powerful enough for most users. You may even find yourself feeling some satisfaction that the Microsoft monopoly no longer owns one little corner of your computing world.