For those seeking an alternative to Office, OpenOffice is comprehensive. But Google offers a very different approach, with web-based office software in the form of Docs & Spreadsheets (docs.google.com).
As the name suggests, this application boils down to an online word processor and spreadsheet. It doesn't offer anywhere near as many features as Office or OpenOffice, but it provides an extremely easy way to share documents and work on them with colleagues anywhere around the world.
Back to basics
If you have a Google account - Google Mail, for example - you can start to work on a document immediately. Compared to Writer and Word, Docs appears fairly basic at first glance. The Wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) editor allows you to make essential formatting changes, but you will discover little in the way of editing tools for complex documents which require headers, an index or outline views, for example.
Nonetheless, Google has a few tricks up its sleeve. You can upload Word, RTF or HTML documents to edit online, or simply create them from scratch. Not all formatting is seamless, but documents can be saved in several file formats. The real bonus is the ability to save to PDF. And you can revert to older versions of a document at any point.
Google spreadsheet is not as fully functioning as Excel or Calc. You won't find pivot tables, macros or chart-creation tools here. However, there is an extensive range of formulae that can be employed for data calculations and the program works fairly well with even complex Excel spreadsheets.
Where Google has an advantage over Office is in terms of collaborative working. Clicking on the Collaborate tab allows you two options for sharing your document, so you control whether colleagues can edit or view your work. Third-party members are automatically mailed a link to the document.
The clever thing about Google Docs is that changes to word documents and spreadsheets can be published as an RSS feed. Any subsequent changes can be viewed via an appropriate reader, so you are updated immediately. You can invite others to participate on a document via Google Chat, or post documents online or to a blog, giving you superb real-time editing tools.
As a standalone office suite, Docs & Spreadsheets doesn't offer enough to replace Office - at least not yet. There are plenty of features that advanced users will miss. But Google is on the mark to provide basic tools that most people require, most of the time. And it steams ahead in terms of sharing data. This intuitive feature has been built in from the beginning: if you want a simple way to share and edit your documents, Google is the way to go.