A student who is graduating received a laptop for a Christmas present and he asked me about obtaining Microsoft Office or an equivalent for the laptop, the stipulation being that he had limited funds to do so. I researched open source and free MS Office equivalents and after inquiring about the blind/VI accessibility of the free alternatives with Eric Guillory and others at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, it became apparent that the best alternative was Microsoft Office itself. Based on my experience with such Office Suites such as Google Docs and Office for Mac (a Microsoft product), I knew that all had limitations compared to MS Office. Although Office itself is not without some flaws and quirks, it still has the most features and accessibility of any alternative and is also the most widely used, by far, office productivity suite in the world. Obviously, then, familiarity and adeptness with MS Office is important as a marketable job skill. However, the cost, while not prohibitive, could present an obstacle for a person on a fixed income.
Thankfully, there are options for the VI consumer. A personal version of Office for one user costs about $70. However, for students at community colleges and universities, most schools have negotiated deals with Microsoft to offer students deeply discounted versions of Office and other software. I know that when I was in charge of student technology at a community college, we negotiated a price of $20 for a full professional MS Office Suite. Microsoft’s intentions are not entirely altruistic, however, for they realize the value of cultivating future consumers of their products.
Microsoft has been gradually expanding the number of apps one can use online for free, and now offers an impressive suite that can easily merge with downloaded apps, if necessary, and has plenty of online storage space. Free Microsoft Office includes four core programs – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote (How to Use Microsoft's Free Office Online Software). One can also tap into other apps, including Mail, People, and Calendar. To use these free versions, one must create a Free Microsoft Account . A couple of observations about this: although these are listed as free (What is the Cost of a Free Product?), Microsoft (or any other business entity) is not being entirely altruistic; the currency traded on online free accounts, apps, etc. is a users’ personal information, something to be aware of when using “free” offerings. Also, the online versions are basic versions and do not offer all the bells and whistles of a full-fledged Office suite. If a user is comfortable with these conditions, then the online version is a great cost free alternative. In addition, the MS online storage feature, One Drive, is very convenient for cloud storage.
Listed here are free alternatives to MS Office in no particular order, by no means an exhaustive list but included are some of the most popular alternatives, based on repetitions of them on various “best of” websites. I have not tested accessibility on most of these, although Google Docs is somewhat accessible, it leaves much to be desired: Google Docs, Google Slide, Google Sheets, LibreOffice, WPS Office, Apple iWork, Calligra Office, DropBox Paper, Apache OpenOffice.
All of the products listed above, including MS Office are also subject to discontinuance, change etc. at any time.