When Sun Microsystems bought the little-known StarOffice productivity suite in 1999, and soon thereafter released the product’s code base as open-source software, it was unclear how far the arguably quixotic initiative might reach-and what damage it could possibly wreak on Microsoft’s ironclad grip on the office productivity market.
Now, nine years later, Sun is on the verge of a major 3.0 release of the project that grew up around that code base, OpenOffice.org. While OpenOffice.org hasn’t achieved the same measure of mainstream adoption as its ideological cousin, the Firefox Web browser, the freely available office suite has helped advance the state of file format standardization, to the extent that Microsoft first developed its own open file format and is now prepared to include support for the ISO-standard OpenDocument format in Office 2007.
I tested OpenOffice.org 3.0 in a near-final RC3 version, and was pleased with the progress that the project has made toward improving format compatibility and feature parity with Microsoft Office. I also tested a beta release of StarOffice 9, which is the commercial version of OpenOffice.org for which Sun offers support and intellectual property indemnification.
As with previous versions of the suites, the extent to which OpenOf??Ãfice.org or StarOffice can serve effec??Ãtively as a replacement to Microsoft Office will depend on the features and documents you use in your orga??Ãnization. Since OpenOffice.org is free to download and take for a spin, it’s certainly worth giving the suite a run in your environment to judge for yourself.
Platforms and Formats
Platforms and Formats
As in previous versions, OpenOf??ífice.org 3.0 runs on Windows, Linux, Solaris x86 and Solaris Sparc. Both the Windows and Linux flavors of OpenOffice.org are available in both 32- and 64-bit x86 editions.
New in OpenOffice.org version 3 is native support for Apple’s OS X. Previous OpenOffice.org itera??ítions required the X11 server to run, which made OpenOffice.org a bit of a misfit on the OS X desktop.
OpenOffice.org supports the new??íest version of the OpenDocument file format, ODF 1.2. The latest ver??ísion of ODF includes accessibility and metadata enhancements, as well as a means of specifying spreadsheet formulas that’s more detailed than what was laid out in ODF 1.0.
The lack of formula specificity in ODF 1.0 meant that certain aspects of storing spreadsheet formulas were up to the application developer to define, which could lead to incompatibility between documents created with dif??íferent ODF implementations.
The formula issue hasn’t been a major problem so far, since OpenOf??ífice.org/StarOffice has been the pri??ímary ODF implementation, but the formula improvements in ODF 1.2 lay the groundwork for broader adoption of the document standard.
Also new in OpenOffice.org 3 are import filters for Microsoft Office 2007-formatted documents. The XML-based .docx, .xlsx and .pptx formats in which Microsoft’s suite now save documents by default.
I tried out OpenOffice.org 3’s Office 2007 format support with a few documents and found the fidel??íity fairly good overall, but marred by enough small errors to disrupt roundtrip, cross-application docu??íment collaboration. OpenOffice.org 3 fares much better at this point with Microsoft’s older, binary Office formats.
When maintaining file format fidelity is paramount, I suggest that users opt for Adobe’s PDF format, which OpenOffice.org has supported well as an export format. New in OpenOffice.org 3 is limited support for importing and editing PDF docu??íments, through a freely download??íable extension.
The marketing materials at the OpenOffice.org project site describe the PDF import option as a resort for making small changes to PDFs for which the editable originals have gone missing; in other words, users should keep their expectations for this feature fairly modest.
Indeed, after spending a bit of time testing the suite’s new PDF import function, I’d be hard pressed to imagine many circumstances in which I’d find the feature useful. Imported PDF documents open within the suite’s presentation appli??ícation, Impress, and text is editable on a line-by-line basis.
I was able to import a PDF I had created using OpenOffice.org with fairly good fidelity, but when I opened one of eWeek’s production PDFs created in Adobe InDesign, the result was too mangled to be exported again into PDF form and pressed back into service.
In addition to the formula com??ípatibility enhancements made pos??ísible by the new ODF 1.2 format, OpenOffice.org 3’s spreadsheet application, Calc, packs a hand??íful of useful new features aimed at bringing the application more closely in line with Microsoft Excel’s feature set.
One such new feature is the Solver, a tool for analyzing multivariable solu??ítions that’s been available for a while in Excel as a standard add-in. I located a sample spread??ísheet configured for use with Excel’s solver, and ana??ílyzed the data using both Excel 2007 and OpenOf??ífice.org 3. With the excep??ítion of a difference in the way the two applications defined non-contiguous fields in their respective solver tools (Excel used commas between field labels, and allowed me to control-click on non-con??ítiguous variable cells, while Calc used semicolons and made me type them in), both solver tools performed the same.
The version of OpenOffice.org 2.4 that ships with Ubuntu and other Linux distributions already includes a solver tool, but licensing issues have kept it out of Sun’s official OpenOffice.org build. I tried the same test with this earlier solver version and couldn’t get the tool to work with non-contiguous cells.
Also on the feature parity and file compatibility front, the version of Calc that comes with OpenOffice.org 3.0 now supports custom error bars in charts, and a boost in the number of columns a sheet can hold from 256 to 1,024. To compare, Microsoft raised its column limit in Excel 2007 from 256 to 16,384.
Calc also now includes a spread??ísheet collaboration feature that enables multiple users to work together on spreadsheet documents.
Beyond its PDF import functional??íity, OpenOffice.org 3’s presentation application, Impress, includes a cou??íple of promising new enhancements, chief of which is support for embed??íded tables in Impress documents. Previously, the only way to embed tables in Impress was to paste in a spreadsheet object from Calc.
Impress also sports a polished pic??íture-cropping tool, which abides by the typical, corner-dragging interface metaphor that you would expect to see in an image-editing application.
The OpenOffice.org 3 word processor application, Writer, now comes with a much-improved document-annotation feature, which places inserted notes in the margin of a document, with a line that traces back to the annotated por??ítion of your document. What’s more, notes from different editors appear in different colors.
In previous versions of OpenOffice.org, inserted notes appeared as tiny yel??ílow boxes in the document that you had to click on to read. As implemented, the feature was practically worthless, and it complicated collaborative editing with those taking advantage of Word’s much-better-implemented notes feature.
What About Outlook?
What About Outlook?
Microsoft’s decision long ago to market its Outlook e-mail and calen??ídaring application in with the rest of its Office suite has led most people to expect that all office productivity suites should come along with an Outlook analog. OpenOffice.org has never included such an application in its suite, and this state of affairs has not changed with version 3.
Instead, the OpenOffice.org project is pushing the duo of Mozilla’s Thunderbird mail cli??íent and Lightning calendaring add-on as its preferred route to replacing Outlook. In my testing of the Thunderbird/Lightning combo, I’ve been pleased overall with the pair’s performance and functional??íity, particularly regarding the spam filtering duties that Out??ílook tends to handle poorly.
However, the big prob??ílem with Thunderbird as an Outlook replacement is the absence of the Mes??ísaging API protocol through which Outlook talks to Exchange. For e-mail, enabling IMAP in Exchange will do the trick, but Lightning does not link up to Exchange’s calendar and task list.
Lightning does support remote cal??íendars exposed through iCal, CalDAV or Sun’s Java System Calendar Server, but the Exchange omission will pose problematic for many businesses, which would do well to remember that there’s no reason why one can’t simply team OpenOffice.org with Outlook.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]