• Technology
  • CFO.com | US

Spreadsheets Are Free

Liberated from license fees, Calc can be downloaded and installed on as many PCs as you please.

A spreadsheet program that doesn’t cost anything and may even be better than Microsoft Excel? For Jeffrey Causey, president of Strategic Innovations, a Graham, N.C., company that provides strategic planning services to local governments and non-profit organizations, the opportunity sounded too good to pass up.

The program, Calc, is a part of OpenOffice, the open-source business applications suite. The suite’s available on several different operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. Like other OpenOffice applications, Calc is free of license fees. It can also be downloaded and installed on as many PCs as a user or enterprise requires.

Calc includes spreadsheet capabilities that are roughly equivalent to Excel’s featured set. The rival application also offers several facets that aren’t available on Microsoft’s product, such as the ability to automatically define a series for graphing based on the layout of the user’s data. Calc can load and run most Excel spreadsheets and save spreadsheets in Excel format. The program can also save spreadsheets as PDF files or in the Open Document Format, an international standard developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.

Causey began using Calc about four years ago. At the time, he started to experiment with a version of Linux that included OpenOffice. He feels that Calc’s strongest asset, besides its cost, is its ability to efficiently and faithfully copy material between Calc and other OpenOffice applications. That material can include word processing, presentation, and database programs. “That’s supposed to be Microsoft’s strength, but it’s actually easier in OpenOffice,” Causey says. “Things look they way they ought to, and there’s no problem with the programs crashing.”

Another merit of OpenOffice is that it doesn’t show its seams. “Microsoft Office is a collection of originally separate programs that have been kind of melded together, but they don’t mesh all that well,” says Bruce Byfield, an open-source software writer and analyst in Burnaby, B.C., Canada. “All of the different OpenOffice applications have been designed to run together, since they share the same code.”

Causey says he’s found Calc to be “99 percent identical” to Excel. But he notes that there are some frustrating differences between the applications. For instance, despite several updates and revisions over the years, Calc’s basic charting functions remain problematic, Causey says. “Excel is still ahead of Calc on that, particularly in formatting and customization.”

Causey, a CPA, is also annoyed by Calc’s inability to supply a standard accounting format, as Excel does. “I’ve had to work around that, which means using some of the little tricks that I used with Excel a couple of versions ago before they implemented the accounting format,” he says.

Excel may also be a tad faster than Calc, Byfield says. “Calc has traditionally been a little slower at some of the really advanced calculations,” he says. “I don’t think that the average office user or home user would notice those limitations, though.”

Switching from Excel to Calc doesn’t require a major retraining effort, says John McCreesh, an OpenOffice.org’s representative located in Edinburgh, Scotland. “Both Calc and Excel do all of the stuff you would expect a powerful spreadsheet to do,” he says. “Anyone who’s used Excel can sit down and use Calc and vice versa.”

Causey’s final judgment on Calc is simple. “I’m using it, so I must like it,” he says.

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