When you write a letter, term paper or newspaper column, you'll probably use Microsoft Word. Buffing up a balance sheet? You'll probably use Microsoft Excel. Nodding off during a mind-numbing presentation? You're a victim of Microsoft PowerPoint.
These are the building blocks of Microsoft Office, the company's flagship productivity suite and 800-pound gorilla of the business and academic world. Whether you're a Windows or Mac user, you've probably paid the Microsoft Office toll - more than once.
Today, however, some powerful challengers are chipping away at the Office edifice. They have significant outside backing, they're compatible with Office documents and best of all, they're free - something that Office is definitely not.
The oldest challenger to Microsoft is OpenOffice.org, which for obscure trademark reasons is the name of both the software and the Web site where you'll find it.
Born as StarOffice in a brief commercial incarnation, the suite was eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems, which declared it an open source project. That made the programming code available to everyone. The OpenOffice suite is now supported by teams of volunteers who give it away online (although you're free to make a donation to the cause).
Just remember that the word "volunteer" doesn't mean "amateur." Most of the volunteers who support OpenOffice are talented professionals who donate their time and skill for the technical challenge and a chance to make a contribution to the community. Most also have a healthy dislike for Microsoft Corp.
Whatever their motivation, OpenOffice is a well-executed suite of programs that can handle 99 percent of the chores that most people do with their Microsoft counterparts. Because it includes a database, OpenOffice is the most comprehensive of the free alternatives. And it's truly cross-platform - available for computers running the Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Solaris operating systems.
Although it was unveiled just last week, the beta version of International Business Machines Corp.'s Lotus Symphony looks just as capable as OpenOffice at first glance. That shouldn't be surprising, because it's based on the same open source code.
If you've been around long enough, you'll remember the Symphony name from a DOS-based integrated suite that Lotus Development Corp. published back in 1984, before IBM acquired the company. The new version - which shares only the name - is available for Windows and Linux systems, with a Mac version planned for the future.
I don't have space to review both software suites here. Suffice it to say that they look and work enough like their Microsoft counterparts - or they did before the controversial Office 2007 makeover - that you'll be able to figure them out quickly.
IBM's interface, executed in shades of the traditional Big Blue, is a bit less confusing and more buttoned down than OpenOffice, but this is strictly a matter of taste. See for yourself - the only caveat is that both are 100-megabyte-plus downloads. If you don't have a broadband connection, you can order a CD online. Or get a friend who has broadband to download it for you and burn it to a CD or flash drive.
In my trials I couldn't find a Microsoft-created word processing job, spreadsheet or presentation on my hard drive that wouldn't load into its OpenOffice or Symphony counterpart - although I did spot a few minor formatting problems.
Also, none of my documents required Microsoft's internal macro programming language for automated tasks. If your company documents do, test OpenOffice or Symphony carefully before committing time-critical documents to their care. If a glitch costs a couple of hours of your valuable time, free software can turn out to be very expensive.
This brings up another technical issue - file formats. These are the coding schemes that programmers use to store documents. If you're creating documents strictly for your own use, this isn't important. But the moment you share the electronic versions with other folks, you'll have to pay attention to this issue.
OpenOffice and Symphony are compatible with the OpenDocument format (ODf), an industry standard that allows programs from different developers to read each other's documents and preserve typefaces, paragraphs, indents, tabs, bullets, numbering and so forth.
Both free suites also support the proprietary but widely-copied formats that Microsoft used in its basic Office products until the 2007 version. Although Office 2007 programs can read and write traditional Office formats, their native tongue is a new format that only Microsoft has adopted so far.
For now, the free, open source suites might have problems with native Office 2007 documents. But I think experienced Microsoft Office 2007 users will save documents in the earlier formats anyway, just to keep things straight with people who might have to read them with older versions of the program.
In any case, the overwhelming majority of Microsoft Office users will be working with pre-2007 versions for years to come. Heck, in our shop, we're still using Office 97 - that's the clay tablet version.
If you don't create complex documents but do value portability and collaboration, Google has taken a whole new approach called Google Docs.
Instead of downloading huge programs to your hard drive, Google offers lightweight word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs that live in your Web browser. You'll see these types of schemes referred to as Web 2.0, the second generation of interactive Web programming.
By default, Google stores documents on its own servers, so they're available whenever you log on, no matter what computer you're using. More importantly, Google encourages collaboration - you can easily share documents with others, who can revise them online and share their documents with you.
Google Docs can export documents to your hard drive in Office and OpenDocument formats, and the software can import most documents you upload from your hard drive. But in its current test phase, Google Docs are limited in size - in fact, I had to scratch around to find a spreadsheet on my hard drive that came in under its 500-kilobyte limit.
Although it was fine at basic formatting, Google's word processor quickly got lost importing Word documents with more sophisticated formatting - including several samples of standard resumes.
If you value collaboration and online storage over traditional features, or you're just looking for a cheap, efficient way to write letters and reports, Google Docs may be for you. But the applications aren't as ready for prime time as more traditional Office alternatives.
Finally, a word about Office itself. Word, Excel and PowerPoint are great programs. Nor is Microsoft particularly greedy at the low end of the market. You can buy the Home and Student Edition of Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote) for $150 and install it on up to three PCs.
That's $50 per license for excellent software - hardly an outrageous sum. But if you have only one computer or more than three, or you don't want to spend anything at all, the alternatives are worth a look.
For OpenOffice, surf to www.openoffice.org
For Lotus Symphony, visit symphony.lotus.com
For Google Docs, visit docs.google.com