Considering OpenOffice.org

After spending two weeks using OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office, Dan Farber shares his initial impressions of the free office suite.

A few weeks ago I joined the free software camp, replacing my trusty and mostly reliable, Microsoft Office with the 1.0 release of OpenOffice.org.

By free, I mean OpenOffice.org is an open source, zero-cost replacement for Microsoft Office with a comparable feature set. My verdict so far: OpenOffice.org rates a 7 on a scale of 10 from the perspective of an individual user untethered from corporate manacles.

OpenOffice.org is indeed comparable to Microsoft Office in terms of its capabilities across its various modules. I've been using the version 1.0 release for my daily word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing tasks. The product doesn't come with a significant learning curve, and for software borne of 18 months of collaboration among 10,000 volunteer developers (and Sun engineers) it appears to be remarkably stable.

After two weeks of banging on it, I've experienced a few hard crashes and some quirky behavior (such as a lame thesaurus and trouble cutting and pasting from HTML pages into documents), but not much more than I endure using Microsoft Office--and OpenOffice.org is free. And if you have the inclination, you can track problems and find possible solutions in the OpenOffice.org bug tracker.

OpenOffice.org shares its code base with the soon to be released StarOffice 6.0 ($75.95) from Sun Microsystems. The StarOffice version of the code includes some extra features, such as a database, special fonts, template, clip art, some file filters and, more importantly, training and support from Sun. Similar to StarOffice 6.0, OpenOffice.org 1.0 is available in more than 25 languages and runs natively on Windows, Solaris, Linux and Mac OS X at this point.

Nicole von Kaenel, product manager for Microsoft Office, predictably characterized StarOffice--and hence its sibling OpenOffice.org--as a "cheap alternative" to Microsoft Office. I rated OpenOffice.org a 7 mostly because of its lack of a formal support infrastructure and the relative immaturity of the product (version 1.0). If you were to ask me to rate overall value of the software as an individual user--given that it's free--I would give it a score of between 8 and 10. OpenOffice.org 1.0 has a competitive feature set, but it lacks options such as "word count" (essential for journalists) and sufficient support for Asian character sets.

As a corporate user, I can't heartily recommend OpenOffice.org 1.0--or even StarOffice--without more thorough testing. Compatibility, converting macros and templates-as well as future directions for the product--will figure into the evaluation process. Certainly, Microsoft is not standing still with Office, but neither is Sun nor the merry band of OpenOffice.org developers. This is a situation that can only be good for users.

Have you tried both OpenOffice.org and StarOffice 6.0? Share your experience in our TalkBack forum.

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