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Buyer's guide to OpenOffice 3.3: what can it offer to small businesses?

Released this summer with the final product expected soon, the Openoffice 3.3 beta is giving Microsoft's proprietary suite of 'productivity applications' a good run for its money. Oracle clearly has a place in its heart for Openoffice, even if the company doesn't support the recently launched Libreoffice, which sits under the auspices of The Document Foundation.

People unfamiliar with (or simply sceptical of) Openoffice, or indeed beta software in general, may be wary of trying unfinished products, but it is worth noting that Gmail was still listed as 'in beta' until just last year. Openoffice is indeed a fully working, free-to-download version of what many users may only know as Office in the Microsoft sense.

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The Openoffice suite features the following applications: Writer, the word processor; Calc, the Excel style spreadsheet; Impress, the slide deck application in the same vein as Powerpoint or Apple Keynote; Draw, the vector graphic editor rather more similar to Coreldraw or Microsoft Publisher than, say, Paint; Math, the equation editor; and finally the logically named Base database tool.

The download and install process for Openoffice is simple and painless and should take no more than around 15 minutes. During the installation process the installer will ask whether or not the user would like to participate in the OOo-dev Improvement Programme and this is something that non-technical users can help with as much as programmers.

In terms of this release of Openoffice, minor bugs related to stability and functionality have been fixed. Other improvements are perhaps relatively subtle: Writer has improved dictionary power and Impress now allows each presentation slide to be colour-coded differently.

Compatible with Linux, Windows and both 32- and 64-bit Mac platforms, Oracle says that there are now more than 100 million users of Openoffice and that the company will, "strongly encourage the Openoffice community to continue to contribute through www.openoffice.org".

Major adopters

For IT managers considering the suite for an enterprise deployment, then a full list of major Openoffice adopters is available here to provide some testimony to its worth. Listed by continent, this directory of users features a good deal of governmental and public bodies which are clearly using the applications to their full capacity. As well as the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French gendarmerie and the Danish government, Britain's own private sector Travel Republic is also a user. The online travel agency has over 120 workstations serving over one million passengers per year, and finds Openoffice robust enough to trust for commercial use.

In terms of practical day-to-day usage, OpenOffice 3.3 feels so much like Microsoft Office in some applications that it's almost of question of comparing apples with apples. Writer has tried to move a few steps closer to Word-type functionality, with new ribbon-style menus, and its right-click options are now more powerful, with direct options to change font, text size, style, line spacing and alignment.

There is still the question of document compatibility though; defaulting to .odt Open Document Format as it does, Microsoft Word users will generally have a hard time opening these files and will generally have to perform some form of reformatting or open the file in another application. That being said, Writer does offer a full list of "Save as" options, which include Word 97, Word 95, Word 6.0 and .rtf format. It also offers an immediate export to PDF function from the toolbar.

Early adopters

Openoffice.org says that this current beta is a publicly-available version for "technology-interested users and early adopters" and that logically it may still contain bugs. While a full list of new features in version 3.3 is available, the release is promoted as being "fit and trim" on the strength the work of the Renaissance Project, an Openoffice.org sub-project focused on interface improvements.

"The next step, which we plan to take soon, is the release of the first so-called 'release candidate', which is finished in terms of new features and functionality, but not in fact recommended for production use. Usually, we need between two and three release candidates until the final version is available," said Florian Effenberger, Openoffice.org marketing project lead.

Openoffice is still some way behind Microsoft Office in some of the newest features found in Office 2010, such as the enhanced video capabilities in Powerpoint. But with each new release (this one included) there are enhancements to be found, if not completely new features in their own right. Version 3.3 features an extra security switch available under File > Properties > Security, where a password can be set to encrypt individual files - and this feature spans all the applications in the suite.

What appears to be happening now with Openoffice 3.3 is refinement in terms of fine-tuning in many cases. Whereas Writer spent most of the last decade offering only an upper or lower case text option, the choices have now been expanded to five styles to also include a toggle case function as well as sentence case and capitalisation.

Renaissance

These enhancements are, according to Openoffice.org, the result of work carried out by the previously mentioned Renaissance Project, a group which has publicly stated that it is aware that users have complained about what has been described as a "cumbersome and outdated" user interface.

"A great deal of functionality [has been] hidden in many overstuffed toolbars, poorly structured menus and complex dialogs. Functions are thus difficult to access for novice users or too inefficient to use for expert users," reads the group's "problem statement". Its matching mission statement is correspondingly upbeat and, judging by Openoffice 3.3, many of these usability-focused improvements are already surfacing.

 


 

Openoffice vs Microsoft Office 2010

Support: While Openoffice offers community-powered; it is undeniably thinner than the commercially-driven support offerings for Microsoft Office, which range from the company's official support pages, to call centre support, books and support from authorised Microsoft licensees.

System requirements: Openoffice 3.3 demands slightly less of the user's system for a successful installation and therefore may be better suited to older machines. Where Openoffice demands 256 MB of RAM, Office 2010 users will need to come up with at least 700 MHz of processing power and 512 MB to match.

Backwards compatibility: Openoffice runs on Windows 2000 (Service Pack 2 or higher), Windows XP, Windows 2003, Windows Vista and Windows 7. Microsoft Office 2010 however insists upon Windows 7, XP, or Vista to run properly.

Web collaboration: While Openoffice files appear to upload, save and reopen with no problems on the Microsoft Skydrive online server service, Openoffice.org does not in fact offer a similar remote access feature per se.

Grammar guidelines: Openoffice has a grammar checker to rival the functionality found in Microsoft Office applications, but it is comparatively newer than Microsoft's technology at this level. Some critics have argued that while Openoffice is still growing by virtue of open source developed add-ons for services like this, the suite itself is inherently less robust as a result.

Viewing options: Openoffice's Writer has only two document view options in comparison to Microsoft Word's six. While "Print Layout" shows a complete page with all the headers, footers and margins presented as you might expect them, there is also "Web View" which shows the document free of formatting. Word, on the other hand, offers view options as follows: Draft, Web Layout, Outline, Print Layout, Notebook Layout and Publishing Layout. Openoffice.org would no doubt point us towards its focus on functionality above all else as its primary application design goals if questioned on this disparity.

Spreadsheet space-race: As a spreadsheet, Calc now supports 1,048,576 rows as it constantly plays catch-up with Microsoft Excel. Although one assumes that any users seriously considering one million row spreadsheets need to find out what a database is pretty soon. The ability to colour-code workbook tabs from the new colour picker may be rather more appealing.

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This was first published in October 2010

 

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