Is Open Office a star?

Could an open source package genuinely be good enough to challenge Microsoft Office?

Could an open source package genuinely be good enough to challenge Microsoft Office?

One of the recurrent themes of this column has been the rise of open source software. After all, it is in many ways one of the most characteristic products of the Internet, and its unique global collaborative approach would be unthinkable without such an open network.

As I noted a few months ago, open source companies may be taking something of a battering along with all the other dotcoms, but open source itself continues to flourish. By its very nature, open source is largely immune to the economic ups and downs of the proprietary software companies, since its coders work for love and glory rather than salaries and share options.

A good example of an area where open source is making important progress is the Open Office project ( www.openoffice.org/). As a useful background document explains, this began life as the closed source program Star Office, which Sun bought in summer 1999 and released as open source in October 2000. There is a birthday page celebrating one year of existence as open source, which offers a good summary of how things have gone and what has been achieved since then.

Among the white papers there is a good introduction to the project as well as a useful technical overview and a roadmap.

The latest binaries and source code are available for three platforms (Windows, Solaris, GNU/Linux). Those who are chary about downloading cutting-edge software might prefer to go instead for the official beta version of Sun's Star Office 6.0, which is based completely on Open Office code.

Sun also offers a variety of background documents from its Star Office 6.0 home page, including more about individual components such as the word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing software.

As the What's New page indicates, one of the key advances of Star Office 6.0 is its move to open XML-based file formats. This will be a real boon for companies faced with managing myriad incompatible proprietary formats for older data. But, equally importantly, Star Office is designed to open most of the latter with near-perfect fidelity.

This is a crucial issue: for no matter how good Star Office is, or how cheap it is (Open Office will be free, while Star Office 6.0 is likely to be very cheap), if it does not provide a means for users to access their existing Microsoft Office files it will fail to make any serious inroads into the corporate market. My own rough testing suggests that Star Office copes well; a more detailed review of its capabilities.

Star Office 6.0 is one of the most exciting programs I have used in a long time. Even though it is cheap, it is extremely powerful, and is largely backwards-compatible. Companies would do well to start exploring in detail whether its capabilities are good enough yet to allow it to replace copies of Microsoft Office when the final version appears next year.

As well as allowing significant sums to be saved at a time when Microsoft's corporate licensing is becoming increasingly aggressive, there is also the significant advantage of being able to customise the Open Office version to meet specialised needs.

In the new year: Eclipse

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