OpenOffice.org--as good as Microsoft Office?

Summary:Can a free office suite be as good as Microsoft's venerable--and market-leading--Office? Jack Wallen thinks so.

It's so hard to let go.

Even those IT managers who want to make the break from Microsoft to Linux can't find the strength to let go of Microsoft Office. They can't imagine something that could replace it. So they certainly can't imagine that there is a package out there that can not only replace Microsoft Office but can replace it for free.

OpenOffice.org is the powerhouse suite that is raising the ante in the battle for office space. Here's an overview of this product so that you can judge whether it would work in your enterprise.

What OpenOffice.org has
The OpenOffice.org suite is a set of office tools similar to those in Microsoft Office. OpenOffice.org is based on Sun's StarOffice code but is not tied to the proprietary Sun application in any way. The suite consists of a word processor, spreadsheet application, presentation package, formula editor, drawing program, data charting application, HTML editor, and file filters that enable the importing and exporting of various formats. Obviously, OpenOffice.org contains everything you'd expect in an office suite. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case with the original StarOffice.

When StarOffice first came to be, it was Linux's only answer to the Microsoft suite. That was unfortunate because the application was clunky and slow, and had problems with many file formats. OpenOffice.org isn't weighted down with any of these issues. No longer is the suite an integrated desktop (as was the original StarOffice) but a modular set of tools. Now, if you want to open or create a spreadsheet, you only have to open the spreadsheet application. Needless to say, the original StarOffice left a rather bad impression on both Linux and non-Linux users. Since then, both StarOffice and OpenOffice.org have fought hard to break away from that stigma. They are both finally managing to do so.

One other area of major improvement is in file filters. The OpenOffice.org suite of tools has the ability to work with all the standard Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) without the addition of any third-party add-ons. This makes using OpenOffice.org's office suite a much more viable option, since it can now easily interact with Microsoft's offering.

What OpenOffice.org lacks
Outside of a price tag, OpenOffice.org is missing only one piece from the office suite toolkit: the database component. If you're looking at this from a Linux perspective, this omission makes perfect sense. Why add a database component when Linux has two very good open source database components already? And if you are a Linux user and you need a database, you will be using either MySQL or PostgreSQL. In light of that, the OpenOffice.org team opted not to include a database tool.

How well does OpenOffice.org perform?
I've had the opportunity to work with many different office suites (including Microsoft Office, WordPerfect Office, Applixware, KOffice, Hancom Office, and StarOffice) and, in my experience, OpenOffice.org performs as well as its competitors--if not better. And OpenOffice.org is the only suite that is free.

Let's take a look at some of the issues that any IT administrator or end user will face when deciding between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office.

Ease of installation
It's no secret that Linux has come a long way in regards to installation. OpenOffice.org is no exception to this trend.

After downloading the 67MB tar.gz file, installation requires only a few simple steps:

1. Un-tar the package with the command, tar xvzf OOo_1.0.0_LinuxIntel_install.tar.gz.
2. Change into the newly created install directory with the command, cd install.
3. Run the setup command (as root) to begin the installation process.

The actual installation is completely GUI-based and is, therefore, very simple--albeit a bit slow. The only hitch might be in the location you choose to install the suite. The size of this application would dictate an installation in the /opt directory. Because you will be installing into the /opt directory, you will have to be running the installation as root.One of the biggest complaints about earlier incarnations of StarOffice was that, because it was not modular in nature, it took forever to load. Well, not too much has changed in that respect. OpenOffice.org is still slow to start--even on a 1.6GHz processor with 256MB of RAM, the application took more than 20 seconds to open. Of course, once any of the applications has opened (word processor, spreadsheet app, presentation app, or drawing app), all the others open very quickly.

Opening specific applications from the suite is a bit tricky if you're not used to the process. Below is a list of the commands you'll need to run to open each of the corresponding applications. These commands are located in the programs directory within the OpenOffice main directory.

  • swriter - word processor
  • scalc - spreadsheet application
  • smath - formula editor/creator
  • sweb - HTML editor
  • simpress - presentation package

There are numerous other commands that actually run subprograms from within the main applications (for instance, sfax runs the fax editor from within swriter), but these applications are typically not run on their own.

For Windows users, the slow startup won't be a major issue. After installing the application, an icon will appear in the system tray for the quick-start daemon. This cuts the load time on a Windows machine by a third. In Linux, you can install the ooqstart application to cut down on the startup time. Unfortunately, the ooqstart application requires that gnome-core and gnome-core-devel be installed on the machine. If, like me, you are using the latest release from Ximian, neither gnome-core nor gnome-core-devel is installed.

If you are using a version of GNOME that includes both gnome-core and gnome-core-devel, get ooqstart, install it, and put the applet on your panel to drastically cut down on OpenOffice.org's startup time.

How does it compare?
The OpenOffice.org application suite performs almost identically to StarOffice 6, so it's a good match for Microsoft Office. With the OpenOffice.org suite, I was able to open and save to the Office 2000/XP file formats and even embed objects (OLE objects, plug-ins, videos, applets, formulas, and charts). OpenOffice.org is an outstanding application that would well serve any enterprise looking to cut costs. As an end-user application, OpenOffice.org is as simple to use as any other office suite and is as stable as any other--if not more so. Based on my own experience, I've had far fewer crashes and data loss with the OpenOffice.org suite than I've had with Microsoft Office, StarOffice, or Applixware. The issues arise when you attempt to use some of the more advanced features of an office suite and then share the document with another suite.

The first issue is that of fonts. Fonts have been the Achilles' heel of the Linux desktop for quite some time now. OpenOffice.org hasn't done too much to fix this problem. Even if you have the latest GNOME or KDE, by using anti-aliasing the fonts will remain fairly bitmapped. There are certain fonts (Alexandria, Arioso, Bookman L, Batang, Century Schoolbook L, and all of the *L fonts) that do a very good job of anti-aliasing, but many of these fonts do not have a Microsoft Word equivalent and will map to the closest equivalent. As the default font in Microsoft Word, Times New Roman is not horrible in OpenOffice.org. If you don't mind the bitmapped quality of this font, you will be fine (it migrates perfectly to Microsoft Word).

Embedded objects were a bit of a trick with OpenOffice.org. Although they work perfectly within the application itself (adding an embedded spreadsheet worked just fine), I was unsuccessful at viewing the embedded object in Microsoft Word. Although OpenOffice.org could view a document created by Microsoft Word with an embedded object, if the document was saved in OpenOffice.org, the object was lost. It is possible to "pull" the embedded spreadsheet out of the document and save it on its own, but that defeats the purpose of embedding objects.

One other glitch involved double quotes. It took me a while to figure out how to stop OpenOffice.org from replacing double quotes with a question mark. To fix this, navigate to the AutoFormat tool (through the Format drop-down menu), click on the Custom Quotes tab, and then uncheck Replace under the Double Quotes section. After doing this, all double quotes will remain intact.

One enormous application
OpenOffice.org is the single largest open source application available, and it is huge. To go through all the available features would require a month's worth of articles. Suffice it to say that, if you can do it in Microsoft Office, you can do it in OpenOffice.org--for free.

From installation to use, OpenOffice.org is a valid stand-in for Microsoft Office for anyone looking to save a great deal of money. If you're confident that your users fall into the category of those who use only 5 percent of Microsoft Office's feature set (a majority of the computing world), making the switch to OpenOffice.org shouldn't be a problem. If, however, you know you have users who must exchange embedded objects with Microsoft Office users, your best bet is to stick with Microsoft Office until the gents at OpenOffice.org are able to get their suite to play well with Microsoft Object linking and embedding (OLE).

Have you considered switching from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org? What's stopping you? TalkBack below or e-mail us.

Topics: Collaboration, Microsoft, Software

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