The open-source office-productivity suite appears doomed for mediocrity.
The OpenOffice.org suite may
be in danger of becoming an also-ran among office-productivity suites, but not
for any lack of capabilities or features. The 3.3 release of the suite debuted
at the end of January, shortly after the release of its fraternal twin,
LibreOffice 3.3, and is as polished as one might expect in a set of
applications that have been under development in one form or another for
roughly 20 years.
No, if OpenOffice.org 3.3
fails to gain traction, it will be because its potential users decline to be
dependent on the whims of Oracle, which assumed the leadership of the project with
the acquisition last year of Sun Microsystems. It didn't have to be this way: Had
Oracle chosen an uncharacteristically conciliatory path, the LibreOffice and
OpenOffice.org projects would not have forked in the first place. Instead,
three of the leading Linux distributions (Canonical, Novell and Red Hat) have
rallied behind LibreOffice, leaving Oracle as the only significant supporter of
the OpenOffice.org project.
(For further details of the
schism between the two open- source office suites, see the review of
LibreOffice 3.3 in the February 7 issue of eWEEK
Aside from the debates over
community control and the right of ownership, it's hard for me to come up with
significant faults in the OpenOffice.org suite. It's polished and rather
user-friendly, runs on a wide range of platforms and is well-suited for any
organization that doesn't want to commit itself to Microsoft's ecosystem of
Exchange, SharePoint and their related tools.
It should be no surprise-given
the relatively recent forking of the code base-that most, if not all, of the
improvements in OpenOffice.org 3.3 are also available in the LibreOffice
package. These shared elements range from the mundane, as in the new search
toolbar and overhauled print interface, to the exotic, such as the added locale
options and developer features that include new grid-control types and the
ability to extend database drivers.
One of the more interesting
features in OpenOffice.org 3.3 that I haven't discussed elsewhere is the
ability to assign custom document properties that include absolute date and
time as well as duration. Document creators and editors assign these as pairs
of names and corresponding values. Another is the redesigned thesaurus dialog,
which offers multiple language choices for a synonym. Also new, as part of the
context menu, is the "Synonyms" submenu that allows the user to replace the
currently selected word with an appropriate alternative.
The Calc spreadsheet
received a number of usability enhancements in this release of OpenOffice.org.
Colored sheet tabs for easier identification, automatic decimal display in the
General cell format and new options for importing from
CSV files are likely to be the most helpful to the widest range of
user needs and skills. Advanced spreadsheet users will appreciate the new pop-up
window for the DataPilot pivot table tool; users can assign custom display
names to fields, items and totals in the DataPilot table.
The charting functions for
the entire suite have seen vast improvement. Drawing objects can now be
inserted into a chart and edited, and various attributes of text objects can be
changed. Charts now allow the application of hierarchical axis labels when data
from a spreadsheet is used. Charts with embedded data, as in the case of a
Writer document or Impress presentation, allow direct input of text columns
that are then used to create the different labels on the x-axis.
Database support has been
improved in this release of OpenOffice.org's Base data manager, thanks to the
addition of the ability to explicitly specify that primary keys are always
present. Previously, Base would try to determine this, not always successfully.
Support for read-only database registrations is also new in this release; this
allows for central deployment of configuration fragments containing database
registrations without fear of their modification or removal-whether accidental
Upon reflection, the main
disappointment in OpenOffice.org 3.3 is the lack of any features that make it
stand out in comparison to LibreOffice 3.3. Although the LibreOffice developers
found it possible to add several noteworthy and useful features to the code
that forked from OpenOffice.org, there's nothing in the OpenOffice.org suite
that isn't in LibreOffice.
OpenOffice.org 3.3 is certainly
adequate for the task. The challenge ahead for its supporters will be to find
ways to make the suite relevant because there simply isn't room in this world
for two open-source office suites. In some ways, this may be impossible. The
Document Foundation seems to have captured for LibreOffice most of the
intellectual capital and coding talent that formerly contributed to OpenOffice.org,
and replacing those will present a formidable obstacle.
Perhaps, the most damningly
faint praise I have to offer is that I would happily use OpenOffice.org if my
job required it, instead of lobbying for LibreOffice as a replacement. It's not
so much that OpenOffice.org is bad; it's actually rather good in many respects.
Nevertheless, LibreOffice has more features than OpenOffice.org and a broader
base of support. That alone will tip the balance for many evaluators.