7 Weeks Later: Life Without MS Office


iWork vs. Microsoft Office: An image woman works with a laptop on a beach.
Just how possible is it to use iWork instead of MS Office?

Back on May 11, I promised to try and live without Microsoft Office in a “corporate setting” for 30 days. It’s been seven weeks in my iWork vs. Microsoft Office challenge now. And I’m none too happy to report that a copy of MS Office must go with me to the desert island.

However, in an interesting twist, it turns out I can’t live without iWork either.  Follow me after the jump to discuss what worked and what — surprisingly — didn’t.

iWork vs. Microsoft Office

The Achilles’ heel of this whole project, as I suspected back in May, was going to be email and calendaring.  I know Mail will work with Exchange, just as I know there are plug-ins for iCal that will enable some measure of Exchange integration. But this is 2008, and three separate applications for scheduling, contacts and email is just arcane. 

Even Mozilla decided to party like it’s 1996 and finally add PIM-like features to Thunderbird through the Sunbird plug-in.  Sadly, Thunderbird and Sunbird both overtly fail to support the mail server that 95% of people who don’t have to wear nametags to their jobs are required to use. (I say overtly, because you try and raise the notion of Exchange support in the Thunderbird forums, and see how hard you get flamed — go ahead, I double-dog-dare you.)

The productivity applications

When it came to living without Word, Excel and PowerPoint, life became a whole lot easier. I found no instances where I was offered an Office document and was unable to work on it. In fact, I found that producing professional-looking deliverables for clients was actually easier in iWork than in MS Office. iWork’s speed, as well as its ability to make documents that just sparkle, really won out.

My only gripe: the built-in grammar checker. This issue is pervasive in applications that use OS X’s built-in spelling and grammar checking. (The problem even occurs in my new favorite writing tool: Scrivener.) If you’re reading this before one of the guys has a chance to clean up the mess that I call writing, it likely comes as no surprise that I’m dyslexic. I really rely on those green and red squiggly underlines to tell me when I’ve made some bonehead mistake.

I didn’t notice the difference until I started to use Pages to compose posts for Cult of Mac in lieu of Word — honestly, I didn’t notice the difference then either, but a whole lot of you all did. It was enough that I took one particularly illiterate article and pasted it into Word, Pages and Scrivener to see the results. Redmond’s word processor identified nearly all of the goofy little errors that my co-workers now refer to as “Leigh-isms.”  (My favorite: my usage of “antidotally” instead of “anecdotally,” as pointed out by reader Paddy.)

The big surprise

The big surprise is that I also can’t live without iWork. Did you know that iWork is more Office-compatible than Office? Who’dathunkit, right? It appears that Microsoft’s removal of Visual Basic for Applications from Office for Mac created all sorts of compatibility problems. (Note: This removal also obviates most, if not all, the viruses identified in my May 11 article.)

This is just an anecdotal observation but there were a number of Excel documents forwarded to me from Corporate IT that had embedded VBA that Excel 2008 was simply unable to open for editing. Oh sure, it’d open it read-only, but what good does that do me?  

Enter Numbers, the best thing to happen to spreadsheets since VisiCalc. Numbers had no problem opening the spreadsheets. It stripped the offending VBA code right out. Plus, it even went so far as to unprotect the worksheets so I could do my own sorts and such. Why they were locked in the first place: Corporate IT didn’t want my job to be too easy.

All in all, I’m giving my experiment a 75% pass rate.  It is certainly possible, and even pleasurable, to live quite nicely without MS Office, assuming you’re not an illiterate forced to use Exchange.

Final questions in the iWork vs. Microsoft Office debate

I’ll put these questions to the crowd:

  • Is there a way to get a better grammar checker to replace iWork’s built-in one?
  • Is there some single Calendar, Mail and Contacts solution for OS X that is Exchange-compatible?

If we can crowdsource good answers to these two, I’m happy to give swearing off MS Office a full quarter in the name of science.


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73 responses to “7 Weeks Later: Life Without MS Office”

  1. luke says:

    i’ve really been struggling with the Entourage v. Apple Suite issue for awhile. trying to sync the two has just been an abomination; they just don’t talk well together. and with little to no “professional” support in Entourage (push Calendars or even subscription support), its been enough to just say “thanks but no thanks” to Entourage.

    i am completely content leaving Office for iWork but have noticed that when i’ve created a resume’ with Pages, the gorgeous formatting gets trashed by MS Word. this becomes a problem as many companies now allow for Word doc uploading. thankfully i caught this error before i went ahead and sent anything off.

    i can still see some of Apple’s reasoning for keeping Mail, iCal, and Address Book as separate entities… kind of. but i agree: its a bit arcane to not at least have some sort of option to combine all three into one App. hell, maybe they need to just make a new Pro App, combine everything like Entourage does, provide iCal’s wonderful Push, Sync, and Subscription support, and charge a “nominal fee.”

    with the imminent arrival of MobileMe services, this could be yet another Apple Killer App.

  2. Kevin says:

    “Three separate applications for scheduling, contacts, and email is just arcane.”

    I couldn’t disagree more. Arcane in this case seems to be defined as ‘not how Outlook does it.’

    The biggest reason I wanted to drop Outlook/Entourage was the merging of these distinct programs. The beauty of OS X is that I can choose whichever app I want for any of the three functions, instead of being locked into one app for all three.

    What benefit, exactly, is lost in having these apps be separate? Some quick gains I can mention:
    – I don’t need or want the overhead of running all three all three apps all the time. I run Mail 95% of the time, iCal about 50%, and Address Book about 5%.
    – My parents have no need for calendaring, period.
    – More straightforward UI. Less complex menus, toolbars, etc.
    – The bundling of distinct apps slows development, and means fewer updates of apps.
    – Easier to have multiple windows on screen at one (mail & calendar in separate windows)

  3. caesararum says:

    I have really tried to break free from the Word stranglehold, but there are some nifty things that Word does plenty capably that the alternatives seem to have forgotten. I haven’t shelled out the $80 for iWork (note: I got Office for $20 through the Home User program), so I don’t know exactly how it stacks up in terms of productivity, but OO.o and its derivatives don’t offer the view options that allow me to edit huge documents easily (hello, draft view?), and then it’s all downhill from there.

    The thing that got me about Pages, though, is that it can’t do drop caps easily. If it had something that obscure and unlikely, I might have been able to take the leap and hope that the other obscure features I use might be supported. But without that kind of attention to detail, I can’t rely on it to actually have what I need.

    So, in short – Microsoft Word is the worst word processor, except for all the others I have tried.

  4. Craig Grannell says:

    Personally, I agree about the PIM thing. Although it took a few weeks to get used to it, I’m now much happier running Mail, iCal and Address Book as separate apps, and the integration between them is fine anyway. Also, the single-point-of-failure issue that thwarts Entourage (watch that database go BANG!) is something I’m happy to be shot of.

    However, as someone also doing the ‘ditch Office’ thing, I’ve not been able to entirely wean myself off Word and Excel. The former’s largely been ousted for the excellent WriteRoom, but I still use Word for hacking transcribed interviews into shape for features. And Excel… well, it’s slow and annoying at times, but it still beats Numbers and Tables for filtering, and that’s what I need my spreadsheets to do. That said, I can’t really see me upgrading from 2004 any time soon.

  5. Jason J. W. Williams says:

    Frankly the biggest shortcoming of of iWork is seamless copy and paste between members of the suite. Try copying a bulleted list from Pages into the presenter notes portion of Keynote…it’s a crapshoot whether or not your formatting (including the bullets and indents) are going to come across. More often than not you’ll just get a jumble. Frankly, this was one of the early driving motivators for using Office in the early 90s…seamless copy and paste. Apple needs to adopt it too.

  6. Alan Christensen says:

    I get Word documents from Windows-trapped coworkers. When I try to open them with Word they go all to crap, particularly when it tries to substitute fonts. They open without a hitch in Pages.

  7. schinckel says:

    Hell, if you can live without Office, you aren’t really using Excel.

    I tried as hard as possible to be MS-free this year, and I had to yield when attempting to do plotting of data in an X-Y Scatter plot.

    I daren’t open up all of my old spreadsheets that use Pivot Tables and see what Number has done to them!

    (I love Numbers, it just doesn’t do everything I need. As for OpenOffice? The bad bits of both – Numbers’ lack of features, and Excel’s lack of UI polish).

  8. Richard Bakare says:

    What limits me from switching to iWork is the vast number of templates we use at my company. Thought they open and are editable in iWork, there are errors (tables, paragraph spacing, etc.) that leave my saved version for my Office counterparts, looking a bit off. I also hate formatting in excel (conditional formatting specifically) that is not picked up in numbers.

  9. Chris Hogan says:

    I made the switch to Mac in March and have not looked back. I purchased iWork, Office for Mac, VMWare Fusion, and Office for Windows. I had to have Office on my virtual machine to open all of the files. Entourage on my Mac seemed like a wonderful solution, but I ended up uninstalling Office for Mac, and then doing a clean install of it, just so I would quit receiving error messages. In these past four months, I have found that I open MS Office more to tell others how to use it, then actually using its applications. One great benefit of using iWork, when everyone else has MS Office, is that I export to a PDF, and can rest assured that the recipient will not be able to monkey around with what was sent. Everything opens easily with iWork, and it exports nicely too.

  10. Gene says:

    I’ve been living in a REAL fortune 50 corporate environment for some time on a MBP. Luckily, I don’t use Exchange, but my company uses Lotus Notes. I’m actually running on the beta version of Notes 8.5. I use the Notes client for all my “business” correspondence, and the built in apps for personal. Clear separation of boundaries is critical. In regards to Office, I gave that up as an experiment as well, and love it.. Using one of the free “office” suites, I live happily.. Please note that I just do the basic documents, presentations and real simple spreadsheets. I love my MBP and OSX (long time PC/Windows user here 15+ years). I sincerely feel I have no need to ever go back to Windows… Actually I’m lying… There is only one application: Visio.

  11. Martijn says:

    @Gene: forget Visio, try OmniGraffle. Honestly, Visio has been killed by Microsoft since they acquired it and OmiGraffle images do look so much better when embedded in your documents.

    As far as the Exchange support, well, I agree, nothing works better with Exchange than Outlook (and NOT Entourage). Let’s hope Snow Leopard will bring that seamless integration, but I’ve got to see it before I believe it.

    I have a very strong dislike of Outlook: it is over-featured, has a messy GUI and is slow on top of it. That’s why I like the separation of Addressbook, iCal and Mail so much. I can’t live without Mail anymore. I’ve stored 4Gb of email and it is still blinking fast.

    Using a keyword search in Mail outpaces every email application I have ever tried, especially the search functions of Outlook are really, really crap. I have to live with Outlook every day at my client’s office, so I do know what I’m talking about.

    Mail’s search capabilities are so good, I’ve dropped the habit to organise mail in folders a long time ago. Search is faster than browsing folders.

  12. Hayley says:

    I’ve been using iWork as my main office-type package for a while now, and whilst I prefer using it, I still end up going back to Word to make sure documents will look as good when sent to others. (I’ve tried sending them PDF’s but that has caused more problems!)

  13. Craig Grannell says:

    “One great benefit of using iWork, when everyone else has MS Office, is that I export to a PDF, and can rest assured that the recipient will not be able to monkey around with what was sent.”

    Isn’t that more a benefit of the Mac rather than iWork? Anhy app can print to PDF.

  14. Josh says:

    My colleagues and I are very productive with LaTeX. We’ve all stopped using MS Office and OpenOffice. LaTeX’s output quality destroys the others. And we can edit the same document in parallel, using a revision-control system.

  15. Peruchito says:

    “One great benefit of using iWork, when everyone else has MS Office, is that I export to a PDF, and can rest assured that the recipient will not be able to monkey around with what was sent.”

    Isn’t that more a benefit of the Mac rather than iWork? Anhy app can print to PDF.”

    i think he is talking about the export feature.

    @martijin: you can turn any document in a mac to a pdf. just bring up the print window and at the bottom left, select ”save as pdf’.

  16. Wolf says:

    I’ve tried working without Microsoft Office, but to no avail. I’m even back to Microsoft Office 2003 for Windows (in a VM)…

    iWork-Apps as well as OpenOffice never produce the exact same results that Microsoft products do. That doesn’t say that they are inferior; not at all. I totally agree with the author’s description of “… documents that just sparkle …”. But this slight incompatiblity results in “credibility” problems for me.

    Maybe I’m just unlucky, but my company exchanges lot of different documents (excel, powerpoint, word) with their customers who happen to be rather “inexperienced” with using their programs. They quickyl get upset if thing change even so little, no matter what the reason is.

    For example, we all know about Microsoft Word’s Problem about formatting if you change the printer. Well, I certainly have a different printer than my customers, and of course sometimes a line that just fit on a page in my Word spills over in their word, due to different printer margins.

    This is no problem, until people see me working in front of an Apple Computer. From then on this “problem” becomes one, people shaking their heads in disgust or sorrow (for me), mumbling something of using a real computer, growing up, all that stuff.
    I’m 40 years old, have grey hair, am an avid user of Windows but have chosen to switch to a Mac deliberately. I can rattle off (windows) registry keys from my head, use windows laptops about as often as my MBP, but the Apple on the lid gives it all aways – I’m a dummy.

    I switched to working in Parallels/Microsoft Office, using FullScreenMode for presentations to persuade people that I only have different hardware, not software. No winner here. People still react negative. Hey! I’m using the exact same software, but still it’s my fault if something goes wrong. I hate that.

    So I am back to Office 2003 in a virtual machine, just to make sure nothing that changes would’nt change on a windoze machine as well.
    I find it anoying to use one program for work, and another one for my private stuff, but thats about as close as I come to not using windows.

  17. Wolf says:

    Sorry, Error in last sentence:
    ..to not using Microsoft Office.

  18. smallerdemon says:

    Having been an Entourage users since, well, it was Outlook Express for Mac back to a version I don’t remember (but I know at least back to 1998) I recently have been thinking of finally pulling the plug on it. The world of multiple-email address and tons of email makes makes my old folders system seem painful to navigate given that indexed searching and widespread IMAP and large storage quotas are standard offerings at this point.

    Address Book has some advantages over Entourage for me, the main one being how it plugs into Quicksilver for the quick lookup of names, numbers and addresses, and that you can synch entries up to LDAP and AD entries without changing your own entry’s custom fields.

  19. leigh says:

    @Kevin: I couldn’t disagree more. Arcane in this case seems to be defined as ‘not how Outlook does it.’
    Or Lotus, or Google, or Backpack… Ultimately it’s a matter of style and preference. I prefer 1 application, with a tightly integrated UI, I don’t want to have to switch just to perform 1 function or another, this is also the reason I hate CS3

    @Craig: Excel beats Numbers? Uh you got the filter and sort thing right there next to formulas… works just as nice as the Excel one IMHO, and to create a multi table presentation someone is going to actually look at, Numbers rocks. (now Formula’s is where numbers falls down as there aren’t as many as there are in Excel).

    @Gene: I second Omnigraffle… it’s the best, as an alternative you can use ConceptDraw, but I find their UI too “Windowsie” for my taste and the guys at Omni are great!

    On Entourage
    Actually, to be clear, I find Entourage to be a fine application. The Mac Unit at MS should be proud. It works fairly well, and is certainly the bar by which all others are measured.

    Even if I were to permanently remove MS Office from my computers, Entourage would likely stay until someone somewhere comes out with something better, Hey IBM, how about adding exchange support for the Notes client?

  20. leigh says:

    Aside: I want to do a follow up to this article called: How To Live Without Office. I’m looking for good replacements for the following applications, I have some in mind that I use, but would like a fuller set for the article:

    Word Processing / Pre-press: Pages / OpenOffice
    Spreadsheet: Numbers / OpenOffice
    Database: FileMaker Pro / ??
    Presentation: Keynote / OpenOffice
    Diagrams: Omnigraffle / ConceptDraw
    Project Management: FastTrack Schedule
    Email: ???
    Calendar: ???
    Contacts: ???


    Any other categories or programs we can think of? Any recommendations of other things we should look at? The only prerequsites are that the alternative applications have to be fully (or as close as can be) compatible with their MS counterpart.


  21. Craig Grannell says:

    “you got the filter and sort thing right there next to formulas… works just as nice as the Excel one IMHO”

    Maybe things have changed since the last time I used Numbers. However, with my spreadsheets, I need to do a lot of filters with ‘NOT x+y’ or ‘everything but z’. Last I looked, Numbers just had basic selection filtering. If that’s no longer the case, I’ll have to give it another try, because I generally liked the app, bar its graphing (which was also inferior to Excel at the time).

    As for Entourage, it would be great if it wasn’t so reliant on that big ol’ database file that has an alarming tendency to crap out on a regular basis. And for searching, Mail runs rings around Microsoft’s app every time. (I used to be an utterly loyal Entourage user, but Mail 3 swung it for me.)

    As for the apps:

    Basic word processing: Scrivener and WriteRoom
    Spreadsheet: check out Tables
    DB: Bento
    Email (etc.): Mail/iCal/AB!

  22. dorkhero says:

    What? No Open Office or Neo Office? I thought this was Cult of Mac?

    Seriously, as a professional ‘data miner’ I NEED Access, which is not even part of Office for Mac. Everything else Office provides I can already do on my Mac, but I must have database software that is Access compatible.

  23. Frederick Heald says:

    To me the biggest drawback to iWork is that it doesn’t by default (or better, selectable default) save as .doc and .xls, rather than having to export to those formats. OpenOffice/Neooffice save as .doc and .xls by default. I do actually like creating documents in Pages more than Word, but I don’t like having documents in .numbers or .pages format.

  24. Andrew DK says:

    I’m going to go ahead and give a big thumbs down to Open/Neo Office. It’s just straight up ugly and slow.

    As for databases, my company just migrated from Access to PosgreSQL/PGadmin 3. We’re still getting familiar with it but backing it up on my iMac G5 and restoring it to my colleague’s old ass Windows 2000 box (and vise versa) is easy as pie.

    Oh, and Scrivener is absolutely the best word processing app, evah.

  25. Viswakarma says:

    ConceptDraw Pro is far better replacement for Visio. You can get more info on ConceptDraw here — http://www.conceptdraw.com/en/….

    OmniGraffle is another Mac only package that you may want to look at — http://www.conceptdraw.com/en/….

  26. leigh says:

    @Dorkhero, I’m perplexed as to how Access helps with Data-mining, (I’m not challenging you on it, please fill me in), as it is to databases what skateboards are to intergalatic space travel. You’d do much better with SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) or PerformancePoint if you’re a Microsoft shop, both of which are pretty top-notch in their space.

    @Church, for straight up OLTP transactions, PostgreSQL, and MySQL are some of the finest databases out there. I too LURVE Scrivener, it’s become my editor of choice for books, but I still need something to replace the build in grammar checker in OS X –Thoughts?

    @All — I’m thinking for our next article, we’re settled on Bento/Filemaker Pro as our “MS Access Replacement” even though neither can read / write MS Access databases –Agreed?

    OOoh! I think we should also take a look at Google Apps as a possible office replacement… Now what I need you all to do is to help be by gathering up some of the most difficult documents you can find to put our “Suites” through their paces, so we can see how these different apps do in document conversions and such: mail them to: themaccult [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks

  27. Neil Anderson says:

    I’m another who loves the sparkle Pages documents provide. Co-workers gape and say, “How did you do that!?”

  28. David Flory says:

    You might want to look at Mariner Calc in the spreadsheet area. Haven’t used it but I like Mariner Write a lot.

  29. stega says:

    It’s easy to ditch MS products if you’re willing to adjust your habits a bit, but some people cannot do that as easily as others. Find a solution that actually works for you instead of going cold- turkey is much easier. So while iCal is pretty standards compliant and AddressBook can be pointed at an Exchange or LDAP server quite happily, if you absolutely insist on a single application, might I suggest something over Citrix?

    Side rant: you are locked in to using the stuff because for years they’ve made MAPI such a closed off little non-standard protocol, but thankfully Exchange is a very stagnant technology that MS has milked for the last decade. It will die as email begins to fade in importance.

  30. Steve says:

    “Visacalc” might be a good program for a credit card company, but “VisiCalc” was the original spreadsheet program by Dan Bricklin:


  31. hank says:

    I hear that Daylite (http://marketcircle.com/daylit… is very good for a all-in-one approach that’s been reviewed as better than Exchange.

  32. hank says:

    I hear that Daylite (http://marketcircle.com/daylit… is very good for a all-in-one approach that’s been reviewed as better than Exchange.

  33. Peetz says:

    There are many areas where AppleMail/iCal are just not up to scratch for working people.

    AppleMail – Emails cannot request read-confirmation. No HTML signuatures, which some businesses need.

    iCal – cannot create recurring tasks. Tasks do not sync with iPhone/iPodTouch. You cannot use the arrow keys to move through the month-view of the Calendar. There is no go-to-date facility, e.g. if you want to go back to a date several years ago, you have to click though each month.

  34. Opi-Poi says:

    in iCal you can use the arrow keys to move through month view by pressing the Apple key (Command key) and the left and right arrow keys.
    I found in Leopard that spaces uses these keys, however you can select a different key combination or disable it in System Preferences.
    There is a “go to date” function in the menu, select View>Go to date and a drop down pane appears. Or press Shift+Apple(Command)+T. Put the specific date here.

    Recurring tasks? Do you mean “ToDo’s” (rather than “Events”)? Think your right there, and about Mail.

    I’m a lowly humble home user and I think that was the intended end user Apple had in mind for these apps. However Apple are casually walking towards Enterprise/Corporate integration it seems. I do agree a Pro app for Mail/Contacts/Calendar within iWork as mentioned above would make it a much more attractive suite even for smaller businesses.

    Just my 2 pence worth.

  35. Christian Messer says:

    Don’t know if anyone answered your question on a grammar/spell-checker ( read half the posts) – but I use Grammarian. It’s terrific in catching spelling and grammar issues.

  36. leigh says:

    @Christian, Thanks mate, I’ll check that out… No the grammar checker is the one thing that folks haven’t suggested yet.


  37. Dave says:

    i have a suggestion, try gSpell …http://nspindel.com/gspell/.

    I find it very productive and it is better then the internal spellcheck of osx.