updated 12:00 am EDT, Tue October 14, 2008
If you need an office suite for the Mac, your choices used to be limited to Microsoft Office 2008 or Apple's iWork. Unfortunately, neither option offered a complete solution. Office 2008 can share the latest file formats with Office 2007 for Windows, but the Mac and Windows versions of Office neither look nor work exactly alike. If you're already familiar with Office 2007 on Windows, Office 2008 for the Mac will seem different enough to frustrate and confuse you. Apple's iWork is the only other office suite solution, but it lacks a Windows version. For a true cross-platform office suite, you can now rely on the open source OpenOffice 3.0.
This office suite offers true compatibility across multiple platforms, running on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. In fact, version 3.0 is the first version that finally offers native support for Mac OS X (previous versions required X11 to run on the Mac).
More importantly, this suite also offers file compatibility with the latest Office 2007 file formats (such as .docx) along with the newest Open Document Format (ODF) file standards. In addition, you can directly export files to PDF format as well although it cannot read or write to the native file formats of iWork.
Where Office 2008 and iWork fall short is that both suites only offer a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program (while Office 2008 also offers Entourage as an e-mail client and organizer). In contrast, this suite offers a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, vector drawing program, and a relational database.
Another major difference between this suite and Office 2008 or iWork is the way it handles multiple programs. With Office 2008 or iWork, you're essentially using three separate programs. For example, if you want to do word processing, you need to load Microsoft Word. If you want to do number-crunching in a spreadsheet, you need to load Microsoft Excel. Having to load and switch between separate programs is acceptable, but clumsy.
On the other hand with this suite, you only need to load a single program and then choose which function you need (word processing, spreadsheet, etc.) through the New command, under the File menu.
If you're using the word processor, choose the New command and then choose whether you want to open a database or presentation. The suite opens a window that contains toolbar icons unique to that program (such as creating a spreadsheet). The menu bar always displays commands for the currently active window, so if you click on a word processing window, you'll see word processing commands and if you click on a spreadsheet window, you'll see spreadsheet commands.
Besides maintaining file format compatibility with Office 2007, this suite also provides something lacking in Office 2008 for the Mac -- Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) support. If you have any macros created in Excel, you'll find that many of them can run in this suite. Since Office 2008 for the Mac lacks such VBA support, this suite's spreadsheet is actually more compatible with Excel for Windows than Excel for the Mac.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of this suite is the lack of pre-designed templates. Where Office 2008 and iWork offer dozens of templates to help you create newsletters, brochures, invoices, and business presentations, this suite provides the ability to create and save templates, but just a few pre-designed templates for creating simple slideshow presentations. Another drawback is that Microsoft provides a huge library of clip art images for pasting into your documents. This suite provides none.
If you can live without templates or clip art and want a free, open source office suite that provides the same interface across multiple platforms, file format compatibility with Office 2007 and Open Document standards, and the most popular features found in Microsoft Office, you'll find OpenOffice 3.0 more than satisfactory. Chances are good that even if you have a rival office suite, you'll find something to like (such as a database or drawing feature) in OpenOffice 3.0.