Last month saw the latest release of OpenOffice.org 3.2, the first version of the open-source, cross-platform-friendly office suite to ship under the stewardship of Oracle. The new release is a modest update, marked primarily by improvements to the suite's compatibility with Microsoft's Office file formats, and by continued improvement in startup speeds and overall bug-squashing.
After testing OpenOffice.org 3.2 on both Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux systems, I found the new release to be a worthwhile upgrade. The suite is freely downloadable, and version 3.2 contains no changes that would require retraining. It's in the next version of OpenOffice.org, 3.3, that the project is planning on beginning the interface overhaul envisioned in its Project Renaissance with a new look for the suite's presentation application, Impress.
Elsewhere on the OpenOffice.org road map are the changes that Oracle has begun to discuss, which involve a Web-based interface for the suite and greater integration with other products in the Oracle family. As I found during my tests, OpenOffice.org already is proving more amenable to integration with sister products-such as MySQL-through the suite's Firefox-style extensions library, which has progressed slowly but with promise since its debut.
As a rival to Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org 3.2 stacks up well, although Microsoft's is the more polished and feature-packed suite. The biggest advantages that OpenOffice.org has to offer are its price-free-and its capacity for running on multiple operating systems. I've found that OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office play well enough together to co-exist in the same work environment with little issue, although particularly complex documents can still pose problems.
The best way to find out how well OpenOffice.org 3.2 can work for you is to download it and give it a try-the Web address for the product is conveniently encoded into the product's name. OpenOffice.org 3.2 is available in versions for Windows, 32- and 64-bit Linux, OS X and Solaris.
File Format Compatibility
For most organizations, sufficient file format compatibility is the feature that makes or breaks a productivity suite upgrade, particularly when considering a shift from one software maker to another. The success of OpenOffice.org in displacing Microsoft Office installations has long turned on how well the open-source suite has handled Office formats, and the importance of format predictability isn't limited to challengers, either. Microsoft, for its part, held firm to its binary Office file formats for close to 10 years before changing things up with the XML-based format that took over the default format mantle in Office 2007.
Microsoft's file-format shift moved the goal lines back a bit for OpenOffice.org, creating new compatibility gaps where features that worked well with the older Office formats became unusable with the new default formats. One such gap, which version 3.2 closes, is support for password-protected documents. With OpenOffice.org 3.1, I was able to open password-protected .doc files, but could not open similarly locked down .docx documents. In tests with 3.2 using the same new-format Word documents, I had no such trouble, and I experienced similar success with password-protected Excel and PowerPoint files as well.
I did, however, note that I could not unlock with OpenOffice.org a password-protected Excel document that I'd created with a beta copy of Office 2010. This spreadsheet opened as expected with Excel 2007, but wouldn't work with Microsoft's free Excel viewer application. At this point, I'm chalking up the compatibility regression to the beta state of Office 2010, but we'll be keeping an eye on the issue as Office 2010 moves toward release.