Houston had a problem. Now it’s Microsoft’s problem.
You see, Microsoft threatened Houston with the same threat they’ve been rattling around a lot of other places. Sign a multi-million-dollar, automatic-upgrade deal for Office and other Microsoft software, or face an audit. When you’re the only game in town and you suspect people have played fast and loose with your licensing agreement, you can afford to do that.

Except the Texans stared the bully down. When Microsoft said Houston needed to cough up some bucks for office software, Houston said fine, they’d buy it from someone else.

And now that Houston is using SimDesk instead of Microsoft Office, it’s making headlines.

The city of Largo, Florida, which runs itself on a thin-client environment based on Linux and KDE, is a PR coup for Linux. But Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States. And this is turning into a PR nightmare for Microsoft–now Chicago, the third-most populous city, is also looking at SimDesk.

For less than half the money, the cities get ease of use, cross-platform compatibility, centralized offsite file storage, and longer hardware life. SimDesk stands to save Houston far more than the $7 million on paper.

But SimDesk isn’t the only other game in town. WordPerfect is still hanging on, one of the few survivors of the era when there were a dozen or more word processors, spreadsheets, and databases available for the PC. It’s still solid and capable today, and it’s a good choice if you’re looking to go a fairly traditional route. StarOffice is cheaper but still capable. The 602Suite (a.k.a. 602office) is either free or inexpensive, depending on the feature set you want.

Unfortunately, the highly regarded Gobe Productive is off the market, and efforts to raise the money to purchase the source code for the purpose of releasing it as GPL appear to have quietly failed. The good news is that the declination seem to indicate Gobe expects to have some kind of future.

If you want free, go with OpenOffice, which is StarOffice’s free, open-source twin brother. And if you’re willing to dith Office and Windows, you can run KDE and KOffice, or a variety of Gnome productivity apps, such as Evolution, AbiWord, and Gnumeric.

Most of the alternatives don’t offer all the functionality that Office includes, but few people use more than about 20% of Office’s functionality anyway. The alternatives have all of the essentials down.

The main thing tying most companies and organizations to Microsoft Office file format compatibility. An obscure piece of software called ConversionsPlus takes care of that problem. I’ve used ConversionsPlus to convert literally hundreds of files at a time to and from Microsoft Office format, and the process only takes a few minutes.