Will OpenOffice.org 1.1 RC2 Rock Redmond?

It’s hard not to feel a little smug. We’re looking at a crisp, colorful Adobe Acrobat PDF document, created from one of the PowerPoint templates on the Microsoft Office Template Gallery site. But we didn’t use the $399 Office to open and edit the template, nor did we use Microsoft software to create the PDF (despite PDF’s popularity, neither today’s Office XP nor tomorrow’s Office 2003 can save or export Acrobat files). We used the latest release of the Microsoft-file-compatible, cross-platform, open-source OpenOffice.org suite. We paid $0.

OpenOffice.org is the most formidable challenge to Microsoft’s desktop-productivity headlock, even more than Corel’s excellent WordPerfect Office: a word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing quartet that offers impressive (if imperfect) loading, saving, and sharing of files with colleagues using Word, Excel, and PowerPoint; a tolerably short transition or learning curve for Office converts; and availability of Windows, Linux, and Mac OS versions, all free to distribute and free for programmers to poke around with the source code, as long as they pass along any improvements to the global OpenOffice.org community.

And the first batch of said improvements is on display now in OpenOffice.org 1.1 (technically between beta and final status as version 1.1 Release Candidate 2). They range from the abovementioned PDF export to quicker loading, a macro recorder, and assorted Office compatibility enhancements, and they make OpenOffice.org an even higher-priority download (62MB) for anyone considering or budgeting a Microsoft Office upgrade.

The Missing PIM

As in version 1.0, the inclusion of a 2D/3D drawing program (which overlaps Impress, the OpenOffice.org presentation package) is a plus — with its flexible shapes, lines, and arrows, it’s even an alternative to Microsoft Visio for business graphics such as org charts, though the supplied Gallery or clip-art library lacks flow-chart symbols.

On the other hand, OpenOffice.org still has no e-mail/calendar/contacts module, so businesses that take the plunge will still need to deploy Microsoft Outlook or another component. (The OpenOffice.org project recently acquired a sibling, OpenGroupware.org, but the latter’s target is the Exchange server, not Outlook client. It’d be swell if Novell, which last week acquired the Linux developer Ximian, would release an open-source Windows version of the latter’s Outlook imitator, Evolution, but we suspect we’ll have to wait for Mitchell Kapor’s Open Source Applications Foundation to ship its much-anticipated “Chandler,” currently in a mostly vaporous release 0.1.)

Aside from that giant gap, however, switching from Office to OOo (the chic geek abbreviation) may take everyday users only a few hours, give or take a couple of days to learn slightly different keystrokes or relocated toolbar icons. You can either use familiar Open and Save As dialog boxes to edit and resave Brand M documents, or take advantage of one of the suite’s AutoPilot wizards — most help you create new documents from various templates, but another provides a handy batch converter for Microsoft Office documents with log file or status report after the conversion’s done.

We were mystified by one PowerPoint file that crashed OOo every time we tried to load it, but otherwise batted at least .900 in loading documents and templates as long as we steered clear of Office files with embedded macros. Word letter templates with “Click here and type name” obliged us to press the Delete key instead of simply typing over the shaded field; no big deal. Excel charts looked fine. A Word 2002 file we use to test would-be challengers’ compatibility arrived complete with styles, footnotes, tables, footnotes within tables, columns, text wrap around images, you name it. OOo even read a two-column RTF file created with Atlantis Ocean Mind which Word renders as one column.

Instead of rabidly guarded, regularly changed proprietary formats, OpenOffice.org saves documents in an XML format that’s not only easily portable but helps save disk space. A 312K Word document with lots of graphics and headlines shrank to 260K as an OpenOffice.org word processing file, while a simple Excel worksheet shrank from 53K to 22K on disk and a Word phone list dwindled from 485K to just 36K.

After you unzip the downloaded setup files to your hard disk (we accidentally tried skipping the unzip, just double-clicking the Setup icon from within a Windows XP display-archive-contents window, and it didn’t work), setup is straightforward. A helpful dialog box offers to make OpenOffice.org the default application for opening files with Office’s DOC, XLS, and PPT extensions — probably not the best idea, at least early in the transition. A less helpful dialog warns of dire consequences if you don’t have an up-to-date Java runtime environment installed; in truth, OOo needs Java only for certain file filters and JDBC database access.

While the core module is still named soffice.exe, OpenOffice.org 1.0 marked the suite’s transition to relatively lean, separate modules versus the bulky, unwieldy all-in-one design (at one point including a Web browser and even Windows-alternative PC desktop) seen in earlier versions of StarOffice. Release 1.1 still isn’t the fastest software on the planet, but offers noticeably perkier performance than last year’s edition; thanks partly to a Microsoft Office-style “Quickstarter” loaded into the Windows system tray at startup (you can switch this off if you prefer), the applications took no more than 10 or 15 seconds to load even on the not-super-swift Pentium III/550 and Pentium M/900 systems we used for testing, and menus and program functions moved right along.

With its formerly sluggish performance improved, it’s easier to appreciate OOo’s integrated convenience — unlike Microsoft Office, you can access one suite application from within another (opening a presentation, say, from within the word processor, instead of having Word try and fail to open a PowerPoint file as a Word document). One small but immense improvement from version 1.0 is that you can now close your last or only open window without closing OpenOffice.org altogether, so you’re free to load or start another document.

Not Exactly Seamless, But Slick

Other differences from Microsoft Office aren’t quite as welcome. Most menus and commands work very much as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint users are used to — even more so, if you take advantage of the ample customization and toolbar- and keystroke-personalization options. (OOo’s Options dialog box has been noticeably tidied up — American users won’t even have to change each application’s default unit of measurement from centimeters to inches — and its help screens, though still not encyclopedic, are much more thorough and helpful.)

On the other hand, there are still ways to stub your toe during the transition — you can’t click in the margin to select a paragraph of word processing text, and the cursor doesn’t follow a right-click as it does to a left-click, so you can right-click some text to change formatting, then discover you’ve changed text elsewhere on screen.

And again, Office documents with complex, custom-made macros are not OpenOffice.org material. Still, not only does the suite offer to set aside and save any Visual Basic for Applications code along with documents, but its own programming language is easier to access now that there’s a macro recorder that captures your typing and mouse moves for repetitive tasks.

Acrobat PDF export works superbly, with a choice of screen-, print-, or publishing-optimized output (resolution and resampling) and the option to save a document as a PDF file and send the latter as an e-mail attachment in one step. If you have Macromedia Flash installed, you can also export presentations as Flash animations, and you can create, edit, and test XML and XSLT filters if you’re planning to mix OOo with Microsoft Office 2003.

Most of all, as we said last year, the OpenOffice.org applications are full-featured and flexible enough to hold their own against Redmond’s best for at least 90 percent of users — trailing in some specific ways (no grammar checker, a lackluster thesaurus), topping Office in others (not only on-the-fly spell checking and correction but word completion, handy floating palettes for styles and navigating through document elements).

In terms of functionality and compatibility, OpenOffice.org 1.1 looks like a small but significant improvement to what was already a genuine, head-to-head alternative to Microsoft’s 95-percent-market-share suite. In terms of fit and finish or polished appearance, version 1.1 moves from the level of Office 95/97 to, say, Office 2000 — it’s not as pretty as Office XP, let alone the downright glamorous Reading Layout and other features coming in Office 2003, but it’s better than adequate.

The day OpenOffice.org gets an equally good, open-source Outlook alternative is the day it gets a five-star review and makes Microsoft Office the underdog. Until then, it’s an offer too good for any Windows user to ignore.

Adapted from WinPlanet

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