In honor of the release of OpenOffice 3.0 I thought I would make it my first post in the Don’t Pay for Software Series.
What is OpenOffice.org?
It is an office document suite, similar to (but better and free-er than) Microsoft Office or (for those of you who still use it) WordPerfect. Now don’t be nervous because it is free; there are good reasons to choose free software. It’s not free because it sucks, its free because it’s managed by a community of dedicated enthusiasts. The company that finances these enthusiasts makes money selling services and hardware, not software; the software is merely a means to an end, which means you get to have all the benefits of a professional grade office suite without all the cost.
What if you already have Microsoft Office? Are there any benefits to OpenOffice not available from the mainstream flagship office suite? I’m glad you asked. There are several. First, it’s free. Now this may not matter to you now, since you already have shelled out the money for MS Office, but what about when it comes time to upgrade? That time will come, you know, and before you know it. Then you will have to shell out that money all over again for what usually amounts to only a slight improvement over the original.
There are other advantages as well. Ever try to send a document to someone only to find they could not read it? Maybe they were not willing to pay all that money for Word, and now you have to convert it for them. This is all because Microsoft has a history of not supporting standards. That is changing, but it has not changed yet, so all your data is saved in a format that only Microsoft’s products can read. OpenOffice.org, by contrast, can read all your old MS Office files, but by default saves all of its information in “OpenDocument” formats. The code for these formats is made public, so any program can theoretically access them. Also, OpenOffice can automatically export all your documents as PDFs.
This is the main advantage that OpenOffice has over MS, but I would like to reiterate: in addition to this advantage, OpenOffice does almost everything else MS Office can do, and much of it can be done more easily!
What’s New in OpenOffice 3.0
Well, lots of things. Read about all of them here.
There are four features that I am especially excited about.
First, the new Welcome Screen. Aesthetics matter, and here MS Office has us beat hands down. But the Welcome Screen helps, and it also allows for easier document creation and template management. And with Windows at least, you also get a handy little quick-launch button in your taskbar.
Second, better document editing and commenting in Writer. This feature really helps OpenOffice compete with MS Word. Previously these features were pretty primitive, but now OpenOffice supports multiple editors (each editor gets a different color) and true comment display in the sidebar. This is really a plus in my book.
Third: a new, intuitive, and hugely important extension manager, similar to that implemented by Firefox. Extensions are were Open Source software really shines. Because the code is not secret, anybody can look at it and, if they’re good enough, improve upon it. Rather than add all these improvements into the original program, it is much easier, much faster (the powers that be have to approve any code changes to the base system), and much safer to provide those improvements through easily managed extensions. OpenOffice.org makes this process easy, with a dedicated extension manager that allows the user to easily search for, add, and remove functionality at will. My favorite extension so far is Zotero Integration, which allows you to automatically generate formatted citations and bibliographies in your documents. Another handy extension is the PDF Import Extension, which allows you to directly edit PDF files.
Finally, OpenOffice Impress (the equivalent of PowerPoint) is now ready for prime time. With dedicated table creation and other new features, this component of the suite is finally competitive. There is also a new extension available that allows you to use Impress with two screens, one for them, the other with notes and other helps specifically for your. Read about that here.
For a full review of OpenOffice.org, with some attention given to the Mac version, check out this post.
There are several Web based alternatives to OpenOffice. Google docs is the most obvious, but also check at the Zoho suite of products. These are both free. The best thing about these products is that they offer you access to your documents anywhere in the world. All you need is an internet connection; no software required. Also, both offer real-time collaboration, so you and a colleague can work on the same document at the same time and both see what the other is doing; all changes are saved and completely undo-able. Nice. Aside from these features, though, they are not yet as feature-rich as their desktop alternatives.
The other alternative I will mention is IBM’s Lotus Symphony. This Office Suite is based off of OpenOffice, actually, but an older version (the 1.0 series). It bundles that older version with a set of IBM tools for document management and collaboration. In general, however, I have found it less stable and feature-full than the “vanilla” OpenOffice, and it does not import Microsoft documents as accurately.
The main disadvantage with OpenOffice is the lack of any email/productivity manager, such as Microsoft’s Outlook. This is actually not a huge problem since Mozilla’s Thunderbird will do the job quite nicely. Add the Calendar Extension and you have everything Outlook has to offer (combine it with Gmail and Remember the Milk, and you have an always-in-sync online version as well). A full post on this is coming soon.
So I would suggest giving OpenOffice.org a try. You have nothing to loose. Their main page is here. Versions are available for every operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux).