WPS Office – the best free office suite you probably haven’t heard of

I hadn’t heard of the freeware WPS Office but it has millions of users worldwide. It was started over 25 years ago as a DOS program by Kingsoft. This long history shows in its polished interface.
WPS Office looks vaguely like Microsoft Office but is more comparable to Libre/OpenOffice in its features. Power users will keep using MS Office but, for many users, WPS Office has more than enough features.

“WPS” stands for Writer, Presentation and Spreadsheet. It doesn’t have a database, desktop publishing, note-taking or other modules included in MS Office or even OpenOffice. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you only use the main three modules in MS Office.

WPS Office is highly cross-platform with implementations for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android. The Linux version worked flawlessly for me but was less impressive on the iPad.  It claims to have collaborative and cloud features which I didn’t test.  There is also a pro-version but the free version is not crippled.

WPS Office offers templates and product support within a document window of WPS Office. You don’t need to web browse to separate page to find templates. Some people may find this intrusive but I expect more products to start doing this.
I like how WPS Office handles style sheets. Styles can be modified directly from the side panel without having to burrow down through menus. It is also very easy to switch between print view mode and web view mode which is useful if you are writing for both.

I was disappointed that WPS Office doesn’t support the Open Document standard but many people will be glad that it can use Microsoft formats by default.
WPS Office’s native format uses a *.wps extension (confusingly, the same as MS Works.) If you want to test compatibility I’ve exported an original .wps document to:  PDF  .doc and .docx  (right click to download)

I probably won’t switch from OpenOffice/LibreOffice since I use the draw module more than anything else and WPS Office has only the three modules. That being said, the Writer module of WPS Office handled frames well which is the core feature of desktop publishing. Also, as a matter of principle, I favor open source tools rather than just freeware.

Bottom line: good free suite if you often work with MS Office documents.


Tool: WPS Office
Description: three-component freeware office suite
License: open ethos (freeware)
Alternatives: LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Abiword, Google Docs
Usefulness: very

IBM Lotus Symphony – integrated office suite with some unique features

I normally wouldn’t review software on the verge of being orphaned but IBM Lotus Symphony is still worth considering. It is free and works on Linux, Windows and Mac. And, as you would expect with IBM, it is polished and stable.

Notably, Symphony is one integrated, multi-function program as opposed to a bunch of programs thrown together. Symphony has never crashed on me (great!) but if it did , all the documents would presumably go down at once (bad!). It’s strictly a personal preference  but I like the one-program approach.

Symphony back from the dead…

I used Lotus Symphony in the DOS days and was delighted when IBM brought it back about five years ago. It’s based on OpenOffice with a couple of innovations that make it worth considering. It is free software and I think IBM hoped to make their money off of support.   I suspect that IBM rightly perceived that companies are suspicious of open-source software and wanted the security of a big-name brand.

… only to be orphaned?
IBM quit development with version 3 in January 2012 and they released a service update at the end of last year. So, it’s still a fresh piece of software.

According to Wikipedia, IBM has given the project to Apache who will incorporate it in the long-overdue new version of OpenOffice. I hope they keep the main two features that make this product unique from LibreOffice – an integrated web browser and widgets.
This is a consideration if you chose to adopt Symphony. If the rocks stars at  Apache are smart (and they are!), you might be an early-adopter rather than an orphan.

The standard three modules integrated one tabbed interface.
As opposed to most suites, Symphony keeps you in one tabbed interface, whether you are doing word processing, presentations or spreadsheets. Unfortunately, thats all the productivity modules it offers. I wish it included the Draw module and I’m sure some business users would like a calendar/planner module.

The formatting controls are on the right side of the screen which takes advantage of the newer, wider desktop screens. On a laptop, it can be a little cramped. The formatting controls are smartly contextual and well organized – a problem with MS Office, in my opinion.

Integrated web browser

This is such a great feature that one wonders why every suite does not offer it. Many of us constantly use the web while we write, so it makes sense to bring the web into the word processor. Sadly, Symphony doesn’t support dragging content from the web tab into the word processor. This would be a great feature, if it did. You can still cut-and-paste.

Widgets – an easy way to customize Symphony

IBM offers only a few widgets but you can import Google Gadgets. This is huge since it gives Symphony many of the features of Google.

The most useful feature, for me, is that you can create a widget from an RSS feed. If a blog, calendar, newsletter, shared docs, etc generates an RSS feed (many do) you can create a widget from that feed and monitor it within Symphony while you write or work on your spreadsheet.

(Click here for my little rant on how how RSS could make your life simpler.)

This is a very useful feature that I hope the people at Apache keep in the next version of OpenOffice. This has potential to be a killer app.

The bottom line: a solid implementation of OpenOffice with a couple of innovative and useful features. But, you risk being orphaned.


Tool: IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0.1
Summary: customizable office suite with web integration.
Rating: very useful
License: open ethos (proprietary but free)
Alternatives: LibreOffice, Google Docs.

Calligra Suite – ambitious but uneven office and productivity tools

Calliga_logoI spent a few days playing with the Calligra Suite and am very impressed with the variety of its modules. It’s one of the most ambitious open-source applications I’ve seen.

It is a project of KDE and has Windows, tablet and phone versions but I only tested the Linux version.

As expected, it offers the standard modules: word processor (“Writer”); spreadsheet (“Sheets”); database (“Kexi”); and presentation (“Stage”), compatible with the OpenOffice file standard.

What makes Calligra so impressive is the other modules it offers: mind mapping (“Braindump”); flowchart/diagramming (“Flow”); vector drawing (“Karbon”); project management (“Plan”); paint (“Krita”); and eBook composer (“Author”).

calligre_modules

I played with the modules that might be useful in a library setting. My impression varied a lot depending on the module. One module worked very well, a couple were OK and others are just not ready.

Writer requires a bit of a learning curve because it’s organized around frames, somewhat like Framemaker. (Calligra calls them “shapes”) It’s not difficult but requires un-learning MS Word or LibreOffice Writer. Shapes/frames allows a higher level of formatting control which I appreciate. I find graphics in MS Word extremely frustrating. Mixing text and graphics is almost effortless in Calligra Writer.

Calligra Writer imports and exports to the standard formats and directly imports (only) from Google Docs. This worked fine with a relatively simple document.

But other things don’t work so well. Writer behaved erratically at times, even considering my inexperience with the product. It crashed once. I was excited to see that Writer exports to both ePub and .mobi (Kindle) but I was disappointed with the results.

My suggestion to the developers: Writer should be positioned as a desktop publishing program and Calligra should add a lightweight, super-easy, word-processor. Just the basics. This would give users a less-painful way to start using Calligra. The suite could also use Dreamweaver-type web authoring module.

I was excited to try the Author module which is designed to create ebooks and textbooks. The world needs an ebook authoring program where a single master document can be exported to multiple common formats (ePub,kindle,html,PDF,doc,etc) with a click or two. I was motivated enough to endure about four or five crashes, when one crash is too many. The web site acknowledges that Author is an early release.

Sheets was the same — it seems more developed but had erratic behavior and a crash. Braindump worked well-enough but wasn’t what I need in a mind-mapping program. Mostly it’s just a drawing program when I need a program that guides thinking and adds structure to brainstorming. It does use an interesting-but-initially-confusing, expanding “white board” approach.

Krita — the stand-out in the suite

Calligra_krita_example_womanAfter all that, the Krita paint program was a delight! It’s the one module that I will keep using. You may consider installing this as a stand-alone program.

It worked perfectly with my drawing tablet, never crashed and the features were intuitive.   I’ll write a longer review after I use it more.

See the Krita website for some impressive examples of what can be done with this module.  The site includes some interesting interviews with artists using Krita.

Conclusion – an A for effort

I didn’t play much with all the other modules but I doubt my impression of Calligra would change — it’s not ready for work or school. If you use it, consider yourself a beta user. This may not be true for all the modules (like Krita) but others are just not ready.  By the way, being a beta user is good citizenship in the open source community.

That being said, I want to affirm the Calligra development team. This project has impressive potential and should be developed to maturity. I’ll be checking back!


Tool: Caligra Suite 2.6
Description: office and productivity suite
License: GPL
Alternatives: LibreOffice, Sigil, GIMP, Inkscape, more
Rating: mostly not useful.

Workspaces – Adobe’s Office Suite

Workspaces is ending.

NoLongerSupportedIt always makes me sad when a potentially good product fails. I am a fan of Google Docs but I don’t like monopilies, either. I can’t think of any reason why Adobe shouldn’t be able to make an on-line office suite every bit as good as Google.


Adobe’s free Workspaces is a surprisingly efficient way to create and share documents.

It’s Adobe’s “office suite” but not nearly as full as Google Drive.  It has the three main services: Buzzword, word processor; Presentation; and Table (spreadsheet).  All services allow for sharing and collaboration with strong PDF support (as expected.) As is usual with Adobe, it’s very polished.

Buzzword is the best reason to consider using Adobe Workspaces.  The export options are a little better than Google Docs with direct export to the ePub format for use on eReaders and tablets.  This valuable feature is still relatively rare. Export options also include OpenDocument, Word and the workhorse RTF format.

While formatting options are simple, Adobe includes some of their beautiful type faces.

To collaborate or export, your students will need to create an account but anyone with a link can view and print your document.  I have not used the collaboration feature but it seems like what Acrobat users would be familiar with.

Best I can tell, this is an orphan of Adobe’s first attempt at cloud services. The legacy Acrobat.com has moved to workspaces.acrobat.com and is basically OpenEthos (except for the unreadable user agreement), Adobe has launched big-time into Adobe Creative Cloud with their full suite of applications available by subscription. I have no idea how long Workspaces will be supported but it’s worth considering.


Tool: Adobe Workspaces
Description: Adobe’s office suite with strong PDF and collaboration features
License: free and (almost) OpenEthos
Alternatives: Google Docs, Zoho
Rating: possibly useful