Word, Excel & PowerPoint
The Quick Version
You can create and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on almost any computer. Even the ones that don't run the Word, Excel & PowerPoint programs that come from Microsoft.
1. You don't need the official software from Microsoft to create and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint (collectively Office) documents.
2. All computers can create and edit Office documents.
3. Many of the alternative programs are free.
4. Some of the formatting is not perfect as you move between computers, but it's mostly fine.
5. There is a lot of missinformation around this topic that people will assert as absolute fact.
Wow! There’s a lot of nonsense talked about Word, Excel and PowerPoint on different computers. In fact, of all the technology topics in which I hear people confidently spouting complete guff, this is the most common. If someone who knows about computers has told you that you cannot do this on the computer you have in mind, there’re wrong.
My answer can be simply summarised, as Don’t Worry, be Happy.
You can create and edit those files on just about any kind of device worthy of the name computer, which come to think of it, is just about any device, I am sure somewhere someone has a toaster than can do it. Certainly all the machines we talk about on these pages from the humblest of smartphones up can create and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
So I will take each type of machine in turn and tell you how. But first, a few bits of background you need to know for all of this to make sense:
IT'S NOT THE PROGRAM, IT'S THE FILE FORMAT
The misunderstanding comes from confusing the program (Microsoft Word) with the file format (files that end in .docx for Word, .xlsx for Excel and .pptx for PowerPoint). People are used to separating those two things when working with pictures. You have pictures on your computer (often files that end in .jpg) and you can use all sorts of programs to access them, edit them, email them, print them, all sorts. You don't have to have a piece of software from "Jpg Incorporated" (if such a company even existed) to do something with the pictures. It's getting that way with the Word, Excel & PowerPoint files. Even your smartphone can access and edit an Excel spreadsheet with the right app (it's just a bit fiddly to do your edits because of the screen size, but you can do it) and Microsoft need never have written a program to allow it. So be very cautious of people who say of any type of computer "But it doesn't run Microsoft Word", they could be both totally correct and completely missing the point in one easy phrase.
What is Microsoft Office?
You might hear the term "Microsoft Office" and wonder how it relates to the Word, Excel & PowerPoint you actually use. The answer is Office is the umbrella term for all of Microsoft's products that do those sorts of office based tasks. Word, Excel & PowerPoint are in that family, so is Publisher, Access and lots of other less famous pieces of software. Microsoft sell lots and lots of different versions of Office. The principal difference between the versions is what programs they bundle for the price.
Microsoft Office Clones
Over the years different programmers have written programs that do the same job as the Microsoft Office programs. Most of them can even create and edit the files produced by Microsoft Office. This was happening years before all the fancy new alternatives to Windows even existed. Products like OpenOffice and LibraOffice are free alternatives to Microsoft's products which run on Windows. They were written by enthusiasts doing it for the love of programming. That sounds disastrous doesn't it? Like a bunch of amateurs botching it together. But it's actually quite common in the geek world for things to get developed this way. Most of the infrastructure of the Internet was developed the same way (it's called open source if you are curious). These words you are reading now almost certainly got on your screen courtesy of some open source software as it flew across the Internet. Don't be put off, OpenOffice and LibraOffice are very good and have an excellent reputation. If you need Office on Windows, this is good stuff.
The point is, there are programs that do the job of things like Word, Excel & PowerPoint and they don't come from Microsoft. If it can happen in the Windows world, other programmers can do the same elsewhere. For example, if you buy a Chrome OS computer it has Google Docs built in for free. That can create and edit documents in Office format. You can exchange documents with friends and family, they can be running Office that they purchased from Microsoft and you can be using the stuff from Google.
And it's not just Chrome OS. Have a rummage around in the Apple store on your iPad or iPhone looking for Office apps and you will find plenty that can do this. My current favourite is WPS Office, although I do also use OfficeSuite Pro and CloudOn. There are plenty of others, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. If you don't like one, try another. The ones I just listed are all free, which is nice. You will find similar apps (if not exactly the same ones) in the apps stores of Android and Amazon Fire.
The upshot of this is you can create and edit Office documents on pretty much any computing device you can think of with the exception of a wooden abacus (and there is probably someone working on that somewhere).
Now let's look at each type of computer and how you would create and edit Office files on it:
Windows is the home of Office. Both products are created by Microsoft and they do play very well together, as you would expect.
For the home market by far the most popular version is the Home and Student version. That bundles Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote (don't worry if you have never heard of OneNote, hardly anyone has. It's actually a very good note taking program, but it has never had a big following).
You can buy the Home and Student version in one of two ways: You can either just put your money down and buy it outright (US $115 or UK £89.99). If you have ever purchased Microsoft Office before, this is the way you will be used to doing it. Or you can buy a 1 year subscription (US $69 or UK £48), this is called Office 365 and it's a relatively new way of doing things.
"That's easy" you say, "I will buy it outright. As long as I use it for more than 2 years it's a better deal than the subscription". But hold on there. The subscription comes with extra programs (which you may or may not want) Outlook is a popular reason to get this.
Office 365 even has a family pack deal (US $63 or UK £61) - were you to get it to run it on up to 5 PCs or Macs and 5 tablets (before you ask, yes I had noticed that in the USA the 5 user license is cheaper than the 1 user license and yes I do think that's odd and no I have no idea why it is the case and I suspect it will get changed soon to bring it in line with the UK pricing. If you have a household full of people and computers, this ends up be a very good deal).
Whilst we talking about good deals. Don’t forget OpenOffice and LibraOffice they are free and they are good. In fact for some people on Windows I think they are a better option than the official version of Microsoft Office. That’s because they look like Microsoft Office 2003 and before, which many people are more familiar with (versions after 2003 got changes around a lot). If you are used to the older versions of Office, you might find your away around OpenOffice and LibraOffice easier than you would with the latest official version of Microsoft Office.
Microsoft does make an Official version of Office for the Mac (Office 2011 US $120 – UK £96). If you have a Mac it's worth reading the text above for Windows, because all that stuff I explained about subscriptions, that applies to you too. Instead of buying Office outright, you can subscribe to it and choose if you run it on Windows or Mac, or even swap the subscription over as you change machines.
Microsoft produce an Official version of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for iPad, what’s more, it's free!
This is a topic where there is a surprising amount of misinformation out there in the wild. Plenty of people will tell you that you can't do Office on iPad. That’s because this software didn't exist until relatively recently (March 2014) and public perception always take a long time to catch up (although there have been good Office clones on iPad for ages, so the people who know were wrong about it even before March 2014).
The second reason there is misinformation on this topic is that until even more recently (November 2014) you have to have one of those Office365 subscriptions I mentioned in the Windows section above to get anything out of it. That meant most people could only use it to look at documents, not create or edit them. Now, it's free and anyone can create and edit.
It also works just the same on iPhone.
Microsoft have not yet produced the official version of Microsoft Office on Android, but they keep dropping hints that they're going to any minute now. I would expect it to be exactly the same as the version on iPad and also free.
In the mean time. Grab a copy of WPS in the play store, it works fine and is also free.
Same answer as for Android Tablets above.
Chrome has it's own version of Office built in for free with the machine called Google Docs. This will create and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. This works perfectly well, but currently has more formatting problems than the other clones. I have devoted a section below to this topic called “formatting problems” with more information on this. For some people it will be an issue, for many it's not a problem.
Also see the section below on Microsoft Office Online, that works perfectly well on Chrome OS too.
Nonsense talked in the Apple Store
I would just like to call out the nice young people who work in the Apple stores, because it is clear that some of them are talking piffle when it comes to the things I am covering on this page. I keep seeing customers who have been into the Apple Store and been told the wrong thing. The most recent one was yesterday. I was setting up a new Windows phone for a lady and she lamented what a shame it was she couldn't edit her Word documents on her iPad. I installed WPS Office, connected it to her OneDrive and DropBox and she was editing her documents within 5 minutes (demonstrating has so much more impact when people say something isn't possible! People are always telling me that things aren't possible, things I do all the time. What they mean is they don't know how to do it. There's so much misinformation out there).
Sure enough she had been in the Apple Store and they had told her she either had to subscribe to the Microsoft Office 5 user license (which they said was difficult and expensive) or use Apple's Pages program (which doesn't play nicely with other systems). She was a small lady of advancing years, but she had a mean look in her eye when she described how she planned to go back to the Apple Store and have a word with the young man she had spoken to before.
They aren't bad people, but they tend to be subscribers to the Apple religion. They want you to do everything the Apple prescribed way. As I write this there are about 1.3 million apps in the Apple Store, you don't have to use Apple's programs to do things, you can dip into the apps and do all sorts of interesting things that the people in the Store are adamant aren't possible. If you happen to be one of those folks in a blue shirt in the Apple Store, please read this page and forward the link to all your colleagues. I am very much hoping we can get to the point were I can delete this bit of the website because all the Apple stores are up to speed on this stuff.
There is one fly in the ointment with all this. You can get documents that look one way in one Office program and a little different in another. It's not any kind of a problem if you are creating your own documents for your own use (you write a letter, you print it out, everything is fine. You create a spreadsheet, you update it when you want, great stuff), but it can be an issue if you want to create something to send to someone else.
Mostly it's not an issue. A letter in Word on a PC will look the same in WPS Office on an iPad or Google Docs on a Chromebase. However, these Office programs have some very fancy facilities for formatting documents. If you are an advanced user (or the person sending you the documents is an advanced user) you might be able to create something that confuses other versions of Office.
I would like to be able to say that everything is exactly the same on every version, but it's not true. My field experience with home users tells me it is good enough and not an issue most of the time, but it's only fair to point out the limitations.
If you need absolute pin point perfect compatibility on documents you need to make sure you have exactly the same Word Processor on exactly the same type of computer as the person you are collaborating with. Which of course is typically impossible as you all probably collaborate with different people over time and both your systems and theirs will change.
At this point you might say "but I have Office 2013 on a Windows PC and my colleague uses Office 2011 on a Mac and we never have any problems with formatting differences." and that would be my point, you probably won't see any differences, but they are there. I have those 2 exact machines next to one another on my desk right now and I have a document that looks one way on Windows and has two differences on the Mac (because I am a geek and I am using some of the more fancy formatting options, which is where problems tend to be. In this case it was a watermark and freehand rotated graphics, the sort of thing that most people don't do). There are differences (normally small) even when the software all comes from Microsoft and is all official at both ends.
If you are in a situation where you are collaborating on documents and exact formatting is important to you, The latest version of Office (2013) on a Windows PC will be king. However, we have already established that getting Windows as a home PC is a dangerous route to take (see Windows or Not?). The next best option is a Mac and the official version of Microsoft Office on the iPad in that order (versions are planned for Android, but not out as I write these words).
For most folks all the other alternatives on all the other computers will be just fine.
Microsoft Office Online
This is worth an honourable mention: People often tell me that the only way you can get the official version of Microsoft Office is by buying it. Like a lot of things people say on this subject, it's not true. Microsoft have free versions online. Go to www.onedrive.com and make yourself a free Microsoft Account (if you don't have one already). Then start creating Office documents online for free. It's nice and it works on all the computer types I have tried it on. There are some formatting options it doesn't support, but mostly it's fine. There are loads of videos of people doing this stuff on YouTube. Here's an example with a chap on a Chromebook:
That's one for all those people who say you can't run Office on a Chrome (you can actually do it with Google Docs as well).
Office files are everywhere. If you are thinking about using a computer and someone tells you that you can't do Office on it, read this page, then do a little searching on YouTube and you will find videos of people doing exactly what it is you want to do, just to set your mind at rest.
But this is all nonsense!
The slaying of myths and misunderstandings
There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.
I had a document that didn't format correctly!
Occasionally people say to me "I tried this stuff and I got a document that didn't format correctly, therefore I have to go back to using Windows". It's like Windows is a safety blanket that people run to in times of trouble. Which is ironic really when you consider that Windows is by far the most dangerous place to be (see Viruses and Junk Software). It's like you are running back into a burning house because you got frightened by a solitary ant in the garden. Windows is only a safety blanket because it is familiar. You can choose to say that the most important thing in your computing world is the formatting of your documents, but you don't get that for free. By optimising your decision on that one criteria you are paying a price with your online safety. How about you accept that the odd thing might be wrong, but overall you will be much better off because of the improvements in your safety?
Don't be shy, say what you think. The comment system below is there for anyone to ask a question or make a point. Especially don't hold back if you are a normal person just trying to make sense of it all. It's easy to get the opinions of geeks on geeky matters. Much more interesting to hear how this works out for you or what bits need more explanation. No such thing as a silly question, jump in.