posted by William Ku on Sun 16th Jun 2002 18:45 UTC
IconYou may have heard of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice which is being offered as a viable and cheaper alternative to Microsoft Office. Openoffice.org is the open source (or, free indefinitely) cousin of StarOffice. Staroffice used to be free as in you can freely download and install in as many computers as you like but Sun Microsystems has recently decided to charge for Staroffice. However, please do not fret as Openoffice.org will always be free and we are going to show you in this article how and why Openoffice.org instead of MS Office and StarOffice is for you.

Openoffice.org was started as a community project (it just turned one year old) whereby the source code of certain parts of Staroffice were released to the public for volunteers to work on and improve upon them. While these improvements will always be made freely available, Sun Microsystems reserves the right to incorporate some or all these improvements to StarOffice which is still a closed-source project. For those of you who are familiar with the Netscape/Mozilla story, it is the same dual-licensing model that Sun Microsystems is using. You might be wondering that if that is the case, StarOffice will always be the better product.

OpenOffice Installation

However, this may not exactly so since Openoffice.org is constantly being improved by expert programmers, users through their bugs reports and feature requests, technical writers with their excellent documentation all around the world. Improvements are being made available very quickly in the form of frequent software upgrades (could be in the space of a few weeks) while as new versions of Staroffice (and Microsoft Office) are typically only made available between programmed intervals of several months. In addition, Openoffice.org provides cross-platform capabilities and document interoperability (it has a XML-based file format).

Openoffice.org has since evolved and come of age.
Recently, its milestone Openoffice.org 1.0 Office Suite was released and we are going to show you how and why Openoffice.org 1.0 will work for you.

Openoffice.org 1.0

OpenOffice Splash Screen

There are 5 main components in Openoffice.org 1.0. They are Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw and Math. Writer is a word processor; Calc is a spreadsheet application; Impress is a presentation application where you can create slides like in MS PowerPoint; Draw allows you to express your creativity as a digital graphic artist; Math makes the construction of mathematical equations look almost as good as handwritten ones.

Writer

Used to Microsoft Word? Its universal loved look-and-feel has been adopted and adapted by most of its successful alternatives such as StarWriter (from StarOffice(R)), KWord (from KDE's KOffice) and Abiword. In this "attack of the clones", Openoffice.org's Writer is no different and its look-and-feel will immediately set you in ease; you can start using it immediately!

The usual features are all there: popular fonts, style formatting, tables, spellcheck and others-you-nam-it-they-should-have-it. If you found that your favourite feature is missing, you can actually visit the Openoffice.org website and make a request for this particular feature and the chances are that it will get implemented if this feature is also being requested by other users. Found a bug? Report it too and get it crushed.

OpenOffice Writer

For those who are worried about document interoperability, the support for Microsoft Word documents is reported to be better than before (as in Staroffice although there are still a few Microsoft Word features that Writer can not decipher. You can save in Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP, 95, 6.0 formats although Openoffice.org-specific features will be lost. In addition, there is no support for WordPerfect documents.

Calc

Microsoft Excel is yet another Microsoft killer application for which Calc, Openoffice.org's spreadsheet component, is a good substitute. Plot pie-charts, define functions to compute consolidating figures, calculate mind-boggling statistics; you can do all these in Calc .

OpenOffice Calculator

Support for Microsoft Excel documents is just as good. There are no problems opening some of my important Excel files; no losses in the pretty printing too. Calc can save in Microsoft Excel 97/200/XP and 95 format.

Impress

Impress your peers with a non-Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. The usual transition animation and effects are included along with a host of other unique ones. An integrated drawing tool (Draw) complements Impress, Openoffice.org's presentation component, well and allows the creative user to draw specific clip arts for the presentation. Functions for some fancy (or cranky) font design and 3D effects & animations are also available.

OpenOffice Impress

Draw

Draw is Openoffice.org's drawing tool to churn out 2D clip art. 3D animations and effects are also possible. While Draw is meant as a complementary tool to Writer, Calc and Impress, it can be also used as a standalone. However, there is no provision to save in any of the popular graphics formats. This clearly reduces the reusability of the masterpieces that the user has created, to within the confines of Openoffice.org (and Staroffice) documents.

OpenOffice Draw

Draw cannot compete with digital graphics applications such as Adobe Photoshop and GIMP but it would suffice for simple drawing. For those who wanted to dabble in digital art, Draw might be the initil stepping stone that you are looking for.

Math

Anyone who needs to prepare documents containing mathematical equations would know that it is not easy to find an application that combines the required pretty printing of word processing and the representation of mathematical equations to look like as if they are hand-written, rather than some muck-up subsitutes using characters from your keyboard. Even Microsoft Word and its companion Maths Equation Editor do not fully satisfy this requirement. As such, many have turned to typesetting software such as LaTex but at a tradeoff of complexity and the power of word processor software.

OpenOffice Math

Math, Openoffice.org's mathematical equation editor, can be helpful in this aspect. As with LaTex, the user will input commands to specify the type of equations that are needed. In Math, each equation can be saved as an embedded object to be used with the other Openoffice.org components and thus allowing for an integrated presentation. However, the reusability of these Maths objects is restricted to within Openoffice.org (and Staroffice).

Some gripes with Openoffice.org 1.0

Without having the benefit of a high-end PC or lots of RAM, it will take up some time (more than 5 seconds) to load up Openoffice.org 1.0 completely. The general performance will also be sluggish and annoying. In addition, while Openoffice.org 1.0 has a similiar look-and-feel as that of Microsoft Office, its extensive set of features presents a mild learning curve and may take the user some time to adapt to. Otherwise, there are no major complaints with Openoffice.org 1.0.

OpenOffice HTML Editor

Some concluding remarks

I would consider that Openoffice.org with its present extensive set of features and being in the state of continous improvement, can give Microsoft Office and Staroffice(R) a really good run for their money. For GNU/Linux users, Openoffice.org is the much-awaited boon that fill in the void of a complete and integrated office productivity suite. For Microsoft Office users, Openoffice.org might just provide the break from the dependence of Microsoft products. One can have a completely free (and yet fully functional) office workstation (that is, minus the hardware costs)! Do give Openoffice.org a try; you will not regret it!

System requirements

Openoffice.org is cuurently available for the Microsoft Windows, SPARC and GNU/Linux platforms. A Macintonish version is on the way. As for hardware requirements, Openoffice.org is not quite as resource-hungry as Microsoft Office or Staroffice(R) but it will still require at least a decent Pentium PC with 64 MB RAM and some 250MB of hard disk space. I would encourage that for a smooth Openoffice.org performance, install it in a PC with lots of RAM; you would certainly feel the blazing difference in speed than if you have installed it a lesser PC.

Installation matters

Installation of Openoffice.org 1.0 is generally such a breeze that it is not worth mentioning anything about it.

Where to get Openoffice.org

You can download your copy from one of the mirrors listed here.
Alternatively, you can buy an unofficial Openoffice.org CD from one of the vendors listed in the Openoffice.org website.

Differences between Staroffice(R) and Openoffice.org

According to the Openoffice.org website, the main differences between Staroffice(R) and Openoffice.org are mainly that Openoffice.org does not contain certain components of Staroffice(R) such as certain fonts, the database component (Adabas D), some templates, clip art gallery, some file filters and some other minor features. The average Openoffice.org user will not feel the absence of these differences.

Trivia

Always refer to the Openoffice.org Office Suite as Openoffice.org; Openoffice or Open Office are not acceptable for legal reasons.

This document is under the GNU FDL license.

About the Author:
William Ku is a Singaporean presently pursing a Masters of Science (Computer Science) in the National University of Singapore. He loves to watch soccer (alright, England is IN the 2nd round!) and he operates a small local GNU/Linux interest in Mynasoft. You can reach William at kucheech@mynasoft.com

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