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OpenOffice.org 1.1

  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Free
  • fully featured, with good usability
  • highly programmable
  • generally good compatibility with Microsoft formats.

Cons

  • Some key features and Microsoft compatibilities are missing
  • support is via informal user/developer community rather than paid-for.

Twenty years ago Microsoft told the world about Multi-Tool Word, the first 'what you see is what you get' word processor for the PC. Although big names like WordStar and Word Perfect already had their feet under the table, over two decades Word grew into Microsoft Office and now has over 90 percent of the market.

OpenOffice.org is today's newcomer in an established market. Sharing a code base with Sun's older StarOffice, OpenOffice.org -- known as OOo -- has been in development for three years, and the latest version of this office suite, 1.1, is now available. It supports many languages, including those with bi-directional and vertical writing, and a multiplicity of operating systems. Best of all, it's open source, and free for unlimited use from the eponymous Web site.

Setup & interface
If 64MB is too much to download, then you can order a CD for a nominal sum from a number of suppliers -- or you can just get a copy from a broadband-equipped friend. Installation under Windows XP is simple: unzip the distribution and run setup. There aren't many decisions to make -- do you want to associate documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations with OpenOffice? -- and it usually complains that it can't find Java on your system even if it's there. OOo doesn't need Java but it's recommended, especially in the Impress presentation application. Starting up OpenOffice has always been slow compared with MS Office, and although version 1.1.0 is much better in this respect -- mostly because it preloads when the computer first gets going -- speed remains an issue. We loaded a complex 3.5MB Word document into both Offices on a 700MHz Pentium II computer running XP (chosen as OpenOffice is frequently installed on older computers). OpenOffice consistently took over a minute to digest the document, while Microsoft Office took around five seconds initially and reloaded it almost instantaneously thereafter. Once in, however, things immediately smarten up. Microsoft Office users -- indeed, anyone who's used a computer in the past twenty years -- will have no problems with the interface. The full suite of applications -- Impress for presentations, Draw for diagrams, the Calc spreadsheet and the Writer word processor -- follow good usability guidelines in their common use of important menus, and even the rawest of users can be productive after a short introduction. Experienced users can dig as deeply as they like. OOo has various levels of programmability. At its simplest, you can record a macro and associate it with various events such as keystrokes, events or menu items. These macros are generated in OOo's own BASIC language (the manual is on Sun's Web site) and the more adventurous can create complex programs that work in conjunction with the main software. For even greater flexibility, the various APIs within OOo are documented and available to any programming language: finally, the nuclear option of downloading and modifying the software's own C++ source code is available. This array of options has problems, as the OpenOffice developers have left some functions as suitable for user development that would have been better included in the basic package -- the lack of a configurable word count feature is a common moan. Also, translating macros to and from other packages is almost always a time-consuming manual task.

Reliability
OpenOffice.org is not bug-free, but you don't have to go hunting for problems: the bug list is published on the Web site, and if you find a new one you're encouraged to submit it. There's also an active user community in the project forum. We discovered a few quirks: the spelling in some dialogue boxes is incompletely translated; ‘All’ in the ImageMap file open in Draw is spelled ‘Alle’, for example. More annoyingly, a Document Properties box invoked while configuring the printer refused to be dismissed until summarily put down by the Windows Task Manager. Overall reliability is excellent, and certainly better than earlier versions of OOo, which could on occasion give up and close down with nothing but an apologetic suicide note. Even then, the autosave feature invariably saved the day. The built-in help is also well designed, clear, concise and to the point. That observation applies to other aspects of OOo: although Writer doesn't have a grammar checker (which is a contentious device in any case), it does have far better handling of styles -- which it extends to most aspects of a document -- than does Word. Overall, OOo's features are frequently more to the point and better considered than the opposition.

File formats
OpenOffice has its own native file formats, which are copiously documented and XML-compliant. For the first time, you can export files as Acrobat PDFs and SWF Flash format, and the software is also good at reading and writing Microsoft format files. Expect to get upwards of 90 percent of the formatting correct, but there may be some tweaking required in documents that have to live on both platforms: as the OOo people say, this is also the case with any two variants of Microsoft Office. Full compatibility is a Brownian target. Documents in other formats may or may not be catered for -- the filter list is excellent, if incomplete -- but the OOo community is very active in building filters and other solution. A major package of conversion utilities is planned for version 2.0, due in 2005. This next version will also address issues in OOo 1.1 such as functions in Calc that don't match those in other packages. Although Calc is a perfectly good spreadsheet, feature mismatch means that the numbers on imported spreadsheets can be wrong -- a far more serious issue than a mis-formed text indent in a document. Power Excel users are unlikely to find the translation of macro-packed complex spreadsheets an easy task, but those who can build their own from scratch in OOo will have a much easier time (although European users have complained that date formats need work). Impress works well with many PowerPoint presentations and can generate decent results in that format -- as PowerPoint display programs are commonplace, compatibility issues are less pressing. It's certainly a good way to generate effective presentations quickly.

Who should use OpenOffice?
To date, OOo's natural habitat has been with individuals, small businesses and other organisations where the convenience and cost benefit of free software outweighs the disadvantages of imperfect import and export with Microsoft Office applications, and some of the speed issues. Its formidable flexibility more than repays time spent learning the ropes, to the point where the ease of customisation encourages experimentation that can dangerously dent productivity -- but that's down to user self-discipline. The big questions facing anyone considering adopting open source software are: does it work, is it reliable, is it useful? On all these points, OpenOffice.org 1.1 delivers. There are rough edges, some of which may prove unacceptable to some people in some circumstances -- but the package that is all things to all people will never be written. If you want paid-for support, you can buy OOo’s StarOffice cousin, but with twenty million downloads of the OOo products to date there’s a rich community of users and developers already out there. You are encouraged to explore the online side of the software: it's a major part of how OOo delivers on its promises. It feels unfair to OOo to spend this review discussing basic issues -- so often in the context of Microsoft -- when the package has a full feature list and many capabilities in areas such as database access, formula handling, decent header and footer editing, and so on. But those basic issues are exactly those that most matter to most users, and which must be got right before a product can be taken seriously. OOo is proof that the open source community is deadly serious about getting it right, and has the capability to do so. OpenOffice.org 1.1 is far more than a politically correct package for the Microsoft refusenik: it’s a fully equipped office productivity tool that works. If 90 percent of the market was using OpenOffice.org 1.1, then Microsoft Office would have a hard time indeed to dislodge it. And the beauty of OpenOffice.org is that whatever questions you have, the solution is simple: download it and see.

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