A great software freebie

OpenOffice.Org is both the name of an amazing free office productivity software suite and of the website you can go to download it.

Version 3 of the suite was launched in October 2008 and the news prompted me to go along to their site to find out a bit more about the it. I read that OpenOffice.Org has been over 20 years in development and has its roots with a German company called Star Division, which was bought by Sun Microsystems in April 1996.

In 2002, for reasons of its own, Sun released the programming code for the office suite under an Open Source license, which meant that anyone was free to alter the code as they saw fit, without payment. The open source community, which is devoted to producing high-quality free software, embraced OpenOffice.Org and began improving it.

There are an estimated 5000 people participating in the further development of the various programs in the office suite. Most of these are volunteers, although there are about a hundred or programmers sponsored by various companies to work on the development.

From the fact that there are thousands of volunteers co-operating together to produce the software, you might expect it to be a bit of a hodge-podge but it’s amazing just how good it is, to the point where it is a more than viable competitor for the expensive Microsoft Office suite.

OpenOffice.org consists of a number of programs which include Writer, a word processor and desktop publishing program, Calc, a spreadsheet, Impress, a presentations package, Draw, a program which can be used for creating graphics of all types, Base, a database program, and Math, a program for creating mathematical equations.

I have had the time over the last couple of weeks to take a really careful look at OpenOffice.Org and I am uniformly impressed with its various component programs. Most of my time has been spent in the Writer, Draw and Impress programmes but I did at least fiddle with the rest of them.

I had seen previous versions of OpenOffice.Org but had had not adopted it because it really wasn’t ready for prime time. Now, as I use various programs in the in the suite, there is actually very little that I come across that I would miss if I were to totally abandon my venerable copy of Microsoft Office 2000.

Writer, in particular, seems to have developed into an excellent program which would suit the needs of most office users wanting to produce documents, or do a bit of elementary desktop publishing. I was likewise impressed with Impress, if you’ll pardon the phrase, which seems to have all the features that a business presenter might need.

It can’t be denied that, at the moment, Microsoft Office is the dominant office suite in the world and so, if one were to contemplate switching to something else, one would have to ensure that it was completely at home with documents produced using Microsoft products.

OpenOffice.org uses the ISO standard OpenDocument format to save all its files but it is equally at home with documents created in Microsoft Office and, in fact, can be set to use the MS Office document formats as its default. I suspect that the OpenDocument format will likely become the standard and I think that this is shown by the news coming out of Microsoft that Service Pack 2 for MS Office 7 will also support OpenDocument.

I did do a couple of tests to see how well OpenOffice.Org coped with documents produced in Microsoft Office and I was impressed at how well it did so. I can’t possibly claim, from my limited experience, that everything would translate absolutely perfectly, but it would seem that the conversion facility is pretty good.

I imported a complex Microsoft Power Point presentation into Impress and was pleased to see that it came over perfectly, with not only the formatting and graphics completely intact, but also the navigation buttons on each page that link to the various topics in the presentation.

OpenOffice.org 3 is a remarkable achievement, I believe, and it certainly makes a very viable competitor for the Microsoft Office suite of programs. I had a quick look on the Internet for the prices of MS Office 2007 and I found that the standard version was going for R5499, while the upgrade was R3699.

If I was an individual needing an office suite, or an IT manager, looking to equip a number of staff, I would think very strongly about OpenOffice.org before going the Microsoft route. It is available on most computer platforms and in a large variety of languages and will fill the needs of most users admirably.

When you remember that it’s free, the argument becomes unanswerable; if I were Microsoft, and depending on MS Office for my next billion, I’d be really worried.

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Story edited 31/01/2009 to correct the error pointed out in the comment below.



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