Read/create Word, Excel and PowerPoint files without Microsoft Office

I've managed to survive nearly a decade now without having to purchase Microsoft Office or its most popular components: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I refuse to pay $380.00 every couple years for such awful software. Of course, every so often, someone sends me .doc, .ppt or .xls, and they expect me to be able to read it, modify it and send it back. [By the way, it's good netiquette to send files as plain text if possible, and pdf if not.]

To deal with a Microsoft Office file, these approaches are sorted in order of increasing cost and effectiveness:

  1. Google Docs: Google's free, online office suite.
  2. catdoc, catppt and xls2csv: Free Mac OS X and Linux/Unix command-line tools.
  3. Open Office: A freely available alternative to Microsoft Office.
  4. Apple iWork: Apple's office suite for the Mac, about $70.

Related pages:

Reading .doc, .xls and .ppt

If all you have to do is read .doc or .xls, uploading to Google Docs is the fastest way to view these files. If you use Gmail, Google will even include an option to open attachments in Google Docs. If you don't use Gmail, you can forward the email to a specially assigned email address for Google Docs, and Google Docs will import the attachment automatically. And, Google Docs does a reasonable job of converting .doc and .xls files into .pdf files.

If you're a Unix user, catdoc, catppt and xls2csv convert these files to text with reasonably good results.

If you're an OS X user, the native preview utility does a good job of reading these files. Just select the file in finder an press the space bar.

Writing .doc, .xls and .ppt

If you need to modify a file but Google Docs doesn't handle formatting well enough, then I'd recommend trying the freely available Open Office. Open Office is a complete replacement for Microsoft Office, and it does a reasonably good job of formatting correctly.

These days, however, I mostly use Apple iWork to view and create Microsoft Office files. At $70, it's hundreds of dollars cheaper than Microsoft Office, and beyond being able to read and write .doc, .xls and .ppt, it's very well designed. In particular, presentations made with Keynote are noticeably more beautiful than those made with PowerPoint. iWork is also my preferred way to convert Microsoft Office documents into .pdf.

Alternatives to the .docopoly

The majority of my writing these days is done in LaTeX, a freely available document-processing language that is the de facto standard for high-end scientific, technical and mathematical publishing. Most Unix systems have this software installed by default.

To install LaTeX on a Mac:

  1. Download and install MacPorts.
  2. Run sudo ports install texlive.

Alternatives to Excel

My preferred alternative to Excel is the freely available Gnumeric. I'm not a heavy spreadsheet user, but it works well enough for keeping track of grades, doing net-present-value analysis of projected cash-flows and performing a linear regression.

For creating charts and plots from raw data, gnuplot is a highly configurable tool. is powered by linode | legal information