OpenOffice 2.0 review

By now you have probably heard that Internet Explorer is junk. My referral logs show that 56% of the visitors to my site use Firefox. It was rumored that NASA recently ditched IE in favor of Firefox, and New York University does not allow their employees to use IE for sensitive material. On a related note, the state government of Massachusetts ditched MS Office in September, due to it not being compliant with OASIS guidelines.

Personally, I find this amusing: Microsoft was taken to court some years ago for anti-trust issues, but nowadays it's open source that's chipping away at their dominance. In other words, they sat complacent for so long that other products are simply better, and people are starting to take notice.

If you have a computer of any kind, chances are you've used some form of Microsoft Office. If you're anything like me, you use the basic features to get your work done, but could care less about any of the new bells and whistles added with each release. Microsoft themselves admit that 80% of Office users need only 20% of the features.

That being said, I would propose the next time you find yourself setting up a computer, perhaps a hand-me-down for a friend or relative: Rather than force them to buy MS Office, or being lame and using a pirated copy, hook them up with OpenOffice and see if they don't like it just as much. Okay, so maybe you need a little more proof, fair enough. I'll go over areas in which OpenOffice beats MS Office, but also be clear about where it falls short.

Marketing Idiocy

First of all, consider how Microsoft has chosen to market their current version of Office. Rather than try to sell you on the features, or show that it is somehow a better product, their initial pitch is: If you are not using the newest Microsoft Office products, then you need to evolve. This is both insulting to the consumer, and shows a complete lack of consideration for presenting their product in the best possible light. The safe assumption: There aren't significant reasons to upgrade. Here is an example of their marketing:

Are You Working in a Bygone Era?

This attitude is extremely ironic, because if you work in web development, you are well aware that it is Microsoft which exists in a bygone era, having not made any significant improvements to Internet Explorer since 1998, other than bug fixes and security patches. If anyone is holding back the evolution of technology, they are. They seem to be clamoring lately just to keep up with the progression of Yahoo and Google in "Web 2.0" technologies, and are losing ground in the desktop market to Apple OSX and OpenOffice. Let's take a look at why OpenOffice puts Microsoft on their heels…

Writer vs. Word

For the most part, these two applications function pretty much identically. The interface of Writer and the rest of the OpenOffice suite closely resembles that of MS Office XP. I tried opening a few older papers I wrote in Word, that contain funky Greek and Hebrew fonts used in seminary, and Writer handled them just fine. The one significant omission in Writer is the lack of a grammar checker. It has full spell check, but won't hold your hand like Word does regarding sentence structure. I don't know about you, but I've never been fond of those green underlines anyway.

Calc vs. Excel

In previous verions of OpenOffice, Calc was criticized for being under-powered compared to Excel, due to it capping off data rows at 32000. In version 2.0, Calc now supports the full 65536 that Excel is designed to handle. This means users can import very large spreadsheets, without significant risk of data loss. In fact, a major accountancy firm in London recently dumped Excel in favor of Calc (source).

Impress vs. PowerPoint

I was impressed, pun intended, to find that Impress handles every single slide transition animation that PowerPoint can throw at it. I tested it out with a 35mb presentation I did for a seminary class, which contained embedded WMV and MP3 files for an opening video and closing music slideshow. I was disappointed to find that the video did not play, but I was not entirely surprised, since it is a proprietary Microsoft format. After some tweaking, the MP3 played just fine, and the music slideshow went without a hitch.

If you are a web guru, you might also want to consider Eric Meyer's S5 method, as it only requires only a web browser to make presentations. Along those same lines, Robert Nyman has released Ajax-S, which is also very nice. I have also seen some very nice presentations done in Apple Keynote. Quite frankly, PowerPoint is not the only, nor is it the best, presentational tool.

Base vs. Access

Although I don't do a whole lot of localized database work, from what I can tell Base is a pretty robust program, supporting common formats such as MySQL, Oracle and Access. It can also read / modify a variety of address books such as Mozilla, MS Outlook and Thunderbird. It should be noted that you will need the Sun JRE installed to use Base, but that's a free download.

Draw vs. Visio

This might be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, but MS Visio is the program that Draw most closely resembles. I spent some time tinkering around, and found it to be a surprisingly featured program. You can create all the custom shapes you'd be accustomed to for producing complex workflows, and can even apply 3D perspective transformations on various objects. The drawback would be that you can't save or open Visio files, nor does Draw come with the ability to make mockups of the Windows UI, such as the default blue XP interface or radio buttons. To me, Visio seems like a poor choice for high quality graphical mockups in the first place, so it's a mute point.

Math vs. ??

As far as I can tell, there is no comparable MS rival to the OpenOffice Math application. This program is pretty amazing, because it allows you to illustrate and perform complex mathematical equations in a point and click environment. What's cooler still is that it saves files directly as MathML, a subset of XML, which is compatible with XHTML 1.1 when served as content-type application/xhtml+xml. This means that mathematicians and physicists can more efficiently use the web for sharing their research.

Bleak Outlook

You'll notice that OpenOffice does not contain a rival program to Microsoft Outlook. I dare say this is because they don't need to. In my opinion, Mozilla Thunderbird already does a far better job handling email, and Mozilla Sunbird looks to be an up and coming contender to rival Outlook's calendar handling features. Let's not forget Gmail which is by far the best web-based email available, bar none. The "Send As" feature lets me send email with any address, not just ones ending in @gmail.com. If it weren't required at my job, I would just use Gmail exclusively, and never touch Outlook again.

Summary

Drawbacks:

You might have to re-program some of your precious macros, as OpenOffice is not compatible with MS Office in that respect. I consider this to actually be a good thing, because it decreases the likelihood of viruses. Smart Tags are also not available in OpenOffice. In case you need a reminder, they are the little dotted underlines that indicate an address or contact. If you didn't know what they were when I mentioned them, you don't need them. I never once have actually used a smart tag, let alone bemoaned not having them.

Strengths:

It's cross-platform. It works on Windows, Mac, Linux, Solaris and BSD. No matter what OS your friends are using, these open-source formats will be readable by a wide variety of people, and secure from proprietary ties. This way, your documents are not shackled to one company or their licensing restrictions. Also, there's no reason to worry about document appearance.

An added benefit to all OpenOffice applications is the ability to create a PDF directly from the source, and not having to use Acrobat, which is a huge savings over purchasing both MS Office, $399 and Adobe Acrobat, $449. With $848 dollars to spare, you could buy a second computer! Look, do yourself a favor and set aside the natural skepticism that comes with trying something new. You'll thank me later. After all, 49 million downloads can't be wrong.

For more reviews and articles on OpenOffice: