OpenOffice.org Base Is No Microsoft Access Replacement
OpenOffice.org Base is a desktop database application that can be used to perform the standard tasks of creating and manipulating tables, queries, forms and reports.
Base is well integrated with the rest of the OpenOffice.org suite-for instance, data sources that live in Base are easy to pull into mail merge documents in Writer-but the feature parity and format support gaps between Base and Microsoft's Access make this part of OpenOffice.org less well suited as a drop-in replacement than are the suite's other components.
OpenOffice.org 3.0 was released Oct. 13. Base, which underwent a Version 3.0 bump alongside the rest of OpenOffice.org, corresponds roughly to Access, but the gap between Base and Access is broader than the gaps between the two suites' other rival applications.
Most importantly, the support that Base offers for Access database files is much more limited than what the rest of OpenOffice.org provides for its Office counterparts.
Using Base, it's possible to access tables stored in Microsoft's .mdb and .accdb formats, but query access is limited, and forms and reports stored in Access databases can't be read from Base. Base cannot create new Access database files, nor can Base modify existing Access databases.
What's more, the constrained support for Access that Base offers is limited to the Windows versions of OpenOffice.org. The Linux and Apple OS X versions of OpenOffice.org Base don't support Access file types at all. However, there are a couple of third-party applications that allow for some use of .mdb files under Linux, including the open-source MDB Viewer, which allows for export of data stored in .mdb files.
Base does a good job of linking up and acting as a front end to external database servers, including MySQL, Oracle and other external databases for which there's an available JDBC (Java Database Connectivity) or ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) driver. Base can also work with data stored in spreadsheets, text CSV or dBASE-formatted data sources.
Base works most smoothly with ODBC on Windows machines. Using ODBC drivers under Linux requires an additional application, called UnixODBC, to configure the drivers, and the whole process of accessing ODBC sources from Base is much more complicated than it should be. I'd like to see the OpenOffice.org team focus more on smoothing access to external data sources in future releases.
The features most recently added to Base include support for queries within queries-the option of referencing existing queries, in addition to tables, in the creation of new queries-and support for macros within Base files. Both of these features reflect options already available in Access, and will expand the types of applications that OpenOffice.org users may build with Base.
Another often-used Access feature that Base has lacked-a switchboard option for creating menu-like front ends to collections of forms and reports-has made its way into Base through OpenOffice.org 3.0's expanded extensions framework.
Still another element of Base that's received a boost in functionality through the OpenOffice.org extensions system is report building. In the past, Base had been limited to relatively simple wizard-generated reports. However, with the addition of the Sun Report Builder add-on from Sun Microsystems, Base picks up a rather good report design feature.
Whether Base meets your organization's simple database building needs well enough to displace more mature options, such as Access or FileMaker, will depend on your specific needs.
Like the rest of OpenOffice.org 3.0, Base runs on Windows, OS X, Linux and Sun Solaris operating systems, and is free to download and to use, so taking the application for a spin in your own environment should be an easy and worthwhile undertaking.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.