OpenOffice.org: Serious Suite Alternative

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2002-05-06
 
 
 
Microsoft Office virtually owns the productivity suite market and runs upward of $479 per copy—a price-to-ubiquity ratio that Microsoft Corp. has been able to maintain through constant feature refinement and careful guarding of its de facto standard office file formats.

Enter OpenOffice.org 1.0, which became available for download last week. OpenOffice.org--or OOo, as it has become known--is a freely available, open-source office productivity suite that delivers enough functionality and Office file format compatibility to make it a compelling replacement for the Microsoft suite and a good option for Linux and Solaris users.

OOo is based on the StarOffice source code that Sun Microsystems Inc. opened under the GNU Lesser General Public License a year and a half ago. StarOffice 6.0, which Sun has chosen to make freely available only for Solaris, differs from OOo primarily in support: While StarOffice users have Suns support, OOo users will have to lean on community sources. In addition, StarOffice includes extras that OOo lacks, including certain fonts, a clip art gallery and the Adabas D database application.

We expect Sun to charge about $100 for StarOffice—certainly more expensive than OpenOffice, but still significantly less than Office.

However, what OOo provides for free deserves consideration—particularly since Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance have begun to aggressively ferret out improperly licensed copies of Office in businesses and educational organizations.

We tested OOo on Linux and Windows; the suite also supports Solaris. For desktop users of Linux and Solaris, two platforms that Microsoft Office does not support, OOo provides a more polished alternative to the KDE Projects KOffice or Codeweavers Inc.s CrossOver Office.

Theres no version of OOo for Mac OS X, although efforts to port OOo to the Apple operating system—both in native OS X and X Window-based versions—are under way.

Compatible formats

In eWEEK Labs tests, OOos Write word processor, Calc spreadsheet and Impress presentation application generally did a good job with Microsofts file formats. Certain features from Microsoft Office documents were rendered a little roughly in OOo, including the formatting from a table of contents in a Microsoft Word document we tested.

Problems wed noticed in beta versions of the software, such as trouble we experienced with Microsofts "smart quotes" feature, have been fixed in this release.

While OOo offers its own macro functionality, macros from our test Word documents did not transfer to OOo. Microsoft Office users who depend on complex Word or Excel macros may be better off sticking with the Microsoft applications.

Tailor-made

Interoperability with Microsoft-formatted documents is important, but certain compatibility problems will persist for as long as the dominant office productivity file types remain obscured and proprietary.

OOo offers an intriguing solution in its XML-based native file formats, which are fully documented and open source. As a result, organizations will enjoy a freer hand in extending and tailoring OOo applications than is possible with Microsoft formats.

Wed like to see support for OOo file formats in future versions of Microsoft Office (fat chance, we know), as well as in open-source suites such as KOffice.

Improved interface

The most noticeable differences between OOo and the StarOffice 5.2 suite on which OOo is based involve the interface. OOo has replaced the much-maligned StarOffice integrated desktop in favor of componentized applications that now blend in smoothly with the operating systems on which OOo runs.

Also gone are StarOffice 5.2s Web browser and e-mail applications—no big loss because better software options exist for Linux and Windows.

However, while OOo has become slimmer, it is by no means a no-frills suite. We found that Writer offered every feature that were accustomed to using in Word, plus many that we—along with most other Word users—never get around to using.

We were particularly impressed with the Thesaurus functionality in Writer. For various words we picked at random, Writer typically offered us three to four times as many synonyms as Word did. Writer answered the age-old question "Whats a synonym for thesaurus?" with 17 terms. Word offered only five.

Early builds of OOo lacked a spell checker because Sun couldnt release into open source the third-party checker that shipped with StarOffice. OpenOffice.org 1.0 includes a community-developed open source spell checker.

OOo can be installed in single or multiuser configurations, which can make installation a little tricky. Thats because, as with any software, OOo must be installed by a user with administrative or root permissions. However, during the installation process, OOo creates certain user-specific files.

As a result, unless you intend to remain logged in as root all the time—a major security no-no—youll have to install OOo in multiuser mode. This involves a couple of extra steps, but read the installation instructions and youll be fine.

Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.

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