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The OpenOffice Navigator

Live in interesting times

Four years ago, OpenOffice.org didn't exist. Today, it is probably not only the largest free software project in the world, but also the most important. On a personal level, it's also become a major feature of my life - which explains this column.

OpenOffice.org began when Sun Microsystems bought the StarOffice office suite from a German company called StarDivision in 1999. For a year or two, Sun didn't seem to know what to do with the project. Sometimes, it charged for it. Other times, it gave it away. Finally, at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in July 2000, Sun announced its decision. Third-party software would be stripped from StarOffice, and the code would be released under the name of OpenOffice.org. StarOffice would continue as a proprietary snapshot of OpenOffice.org. On October 13, 2000, OpenOffice.org was born. Eighteen months later, it reached version 1.0. Since then, OpenOffice.org has been through five more releases, the latest being 1.1.

During this time, OpenOffice.org has attracted a community of over 13,000. Many are programmers working for Sun, but many are not. The official OpenOffice.org site has recorded over 25 million downloads, and a conservative estimate is that over 100 million copies are available worldwide. Add an unofficial 50 million StarOffice licenses, all based on OpenOffice.org, and the success of its code and community dwarfs even such giants as Apache, Mozilla, and Debian.

But size alone isn't what makes OpenOffice.org important. There are at least three other reasons why OpenOffice.org is important.

To start with, judging from the queries on the users list OpenOffice.org is many people's first exposure to free software - especially on Windows. As they ask questions and discover that the lack of a price tag doesn't mean a lack of quality or dependability, they learn something of the philsophical freedoms behind the software. Purists might argue that the lesson would be better if OpenOffice.org's dual license included the GPL rather than the LGPL, but it's a start all the same.

Second, with OpenOffice.org one of the key pieces needed to put GNU/Linux on the desktop has fallen into place. Not that KOffice or AbiWord are not well- designed programs. In fact, thinking about what these projects have accomplished can leave me with deep feelings of inadequacy in the quiet parts of the night. Yet the fact remains that no other free software office suite is as fully featured as its commercial rivals. Even though most users are unaware of many features in their office suite, those features are still a major factor in deciding what to deploy. Now, together with browsers like Mozilla and Konqueror, GNU/Linux has the basic pieces in place for office productivity. Some minor or specialty pieces may be missing, but the basics are there at last.

Finally, more than any other desktop program that I can think of, OpenOffice.org is doing what free software is meant to do: setting people free. Across the world, federal and municipal governments are turning to OpenOffice.org, not just because of its free price, but because it allows access to information without going through a monopoly. In developing nations, it's allowing people to access computerized information without becoming pirates. OpenOffice.org is even breaking up the monopoly of English in computing by giving the speakers of languages such as Slovenian and Welsh their first chance to work in their own language. And with not just American or British English, but another eight or nine varieties of English available, even native English speakers are being liberated through OpenOffice.org.

I've been covering OpenOffice.org since its first announcement. In fact, I still run in the T-shirt handed out with the announcement. Since that time, I've gone from dismissing it (unfairly) as a Microsoft Office clone to being a daily user and converting all my personal files to its formats. Shortly after Christmas 2003, I took the final step and began writing a book on it. I'm also looking into the possibility of training others in it.

Through writing about and using OpenOffice.org, I've come to appreciate its strengths - and to understand its weaknesses. As software, OpenOffice.org has both, and while I'm convinced of its importance, I'm not shy about talking about its problems. In upcoming columns, I'll be sharing both the good and the bad of what I've learned. If you have topics that you'd like to see, or criticisms, by all means let me have them.

OpenOffice.org is proof that the GNU/Linux community is living in interesting times. Call this column my way of making the times even more interesting.

More Stories By Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield is an experienced manager, writer, and instructor. He is currently a technical, business, and marketing writer whose past clients include IBM, Watson Wyatt Worldwide, and The Alderwood Group.

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Most Recent Comments
John Price 02/29/04 06:38:40 PM EST

If a Windows and learning Linux user can comment. The main difference between OO.o amd MS Office is more or less $500. I have converted to full time use of OO.o. I really like the database capability in OO.o. I developed a major MS Access project and wished now I could have used OO.o in conjuction with MYSQL.

Jon Andrews 02/28/04 06:45:54 PM EST

I find myself going back and forth between OpenOffice and WordPerfect, but I work more and more in OpenOffice. There's no question WP is a better word processor, but I have concluded that I'd rather use a program that is maybe a bit less user friendly and not have to pay for the bugs that Corel never gets around to fixing, version after version. And OO does all I need - just not as elegantly.

Ian Millington 02/24/04 05:27:10 PM EST

Having used SO5 onwards in preference to MSO (which I am obliged to keep installed on my PC for one program that won't support OOo) I can see the great strides that have been made in both performance and function. It will do most things MSO will do, although sometimes a bit more effort is needed. However, after the time I have spent using it, it is MSO I now find awkward. Since its launch, I have only scrathed the surface of it, so why would I need something that needs a remortgage. That applies to 90+% of users I would think.

Leen Besselink 02/23/04 08:20:27 PM EST

I personally prefer the much smaller, all I'd ever need, wordprocessor: abiword (see http://www.abisource.com/).

Leen Besselink 02/23/04 08:18:45 PM EST

An other first (time contact with OpenSource) for a lot of people is ofcourse: http://mozilla.org/projects/firefox/ :-)

I suggest a review of that project too.

Aaron Holmgren 02/21/04 02:12:59 AM EST

The big spaces isn't really a bug. You need to highlight the text with big spaces and reset the text to the default style by clicking on the styles menu and re-selecting default. It will then go back to normal. There must be a particular style in word that is interpreted with large spaces in OpenOffice, but it only takes a second to highlight all the text and reset everything to the default style.

utomo 02/20/04 11:56:36 PM EST

Yes, Openoffice.org become better by time. but they also still having problems which not yet solved (and need to wait for long time for OOo 2.0). I will look at the upcoming article about good and bad.
The problems I found is vary from small problems to big one. I give some example:
- If you save in RTF format, word will not able to display your image.
- Text Direction still problems/lost.
- Spacing/cell height sometimes look bigger than originally. look at http://qa.openoffice.org/issues/show_bug.cgi?id=25528
and others.
But the developers is working on it.

Brandon Rice 02/20/04 08:26:25 PM EST

If you want to try OpenOffice and GIMP on Linux today, just visit my website www.osvsystems.com where you can buy the latest version of the Lindows operating system.

Brandon Rice 02/20/04 08:22:38 PM EST

I left MS Office behind one and a half years ago. I've been using OpenOffice.org ever since. Not only at home, but I have it installed at work, where I wow people who want their documents turned into PDFs.
To Ike Hall and his previous comment about GIMP. I use GIMP on Windows all the time at work to work with 100+MB aerial photos. Go to GIMP.org and browse down to the bottom for the link to GIMP for Windows. You will need to install two files. One for GTK and another for GIMP and an optional third for GIF file support. Don't wait another second for GIMP. I love it!

Corey Mwamba 02/20/04 11:41:18 AM EST

I've used OpenOffice.org at home for three and a bit years now; and I agree, it's an absolute godsend. The one thing I find people don't talk about enough with the program is its stability and its interoperability. This alone makes it a MS Office killer.

At work, our network is set so that some PCs have Word 2000, others are on Word 97, and so on. This leads to incompatibility problems - especially if the file has pictures or tables - and because everybody else at work did ECDL, they all save their files as .doc files... I just say, "I'll fix it," put it on a disk, open the file (without complaint) in OpenOffice.org, and save it as an .rtf file. Problem solved.

The cost is also a big factor. I actually begrudge having to use the software at work: local government spends FAR too much money. If people in the UK knew how much money was spent on software, they'd be sick. The open source movement finally offers us choice; but it's now a matter of lobbying and promotion so that it's taken up.

grahamt 02/20/04 03:33:29 AM EST

I have OpenOffice installed at home but use MS Office at work. OO Writer is more than adequate for my use and largely compatible with the Word documents I create at work. However, Spreadsheet is still woefully lacking in compatibility and this means that Excel is still mandatory. Most of the spreadsheets I create, whilst they can be opened in OO, simply cannot be managed there. Biggest areas of incompatibility surround formulii such as EDATE and DATEDIF and with Array Formulii.

Ike Hall 02/19/04 09:05:24 PM EST

OpenOffice.org may be important in another significant way. There is plenty of great open source software out there, but you usually had to be running Linux to even be aware of it. OOo took the open source concept (along with their open file formats!) right into the lion's den--the Windows Desktop. Granted, OOo has a way to go before it trumps Office, but it's already showing great strides.

My wish list for OOo is small: WordPerfect filters, one-step envelope handling, and WP's magnificent Reveal Codes. Everyone who's ever worked with WordPerfect still misses Reveal Codes. This could be an Office-killer!

Mozilla is blazing a similar trail with its Firefox browser--open source, available for Windows and already far superior to Internet Explorer. There is no longer a need to keep the good open source projects out of the Windows environment (are you listening, GIMP folks?).

When I receive my first .sxc file over email, I'll know OOo is making some headway. As it is, I use it as much as I possibly can.

Jeff Waugh 02/19/04 11:29:15 AM EST

Whooo! Real training for Open Office!


Should be able to convince my boss with this finally. :)

J. David Boyd 02/19/04 08:01:14 AM EST

OpenOffice.org is great. When my company received "the threatening letter" from BSA about possibly having unlicensed copies of microsoft office, we reformatted all our systems to removed any leftover cruft from any old office installations, re-installed licensed copies of XP (which we already had), and installed OpenOffice.org on every system. Total cost was just the time involved, and it works great!

Bumpy Stucko 02/18/04 04:31:14 PM EST

May you live in interesting times. --Old Chinese curse

I agree, Open Office is extremely important. I wouldn't say it's more important than Linux, but it's what opens the way for Linux to move into the desktop market in a big way. And that is what will introduce Linux to ordinary computer users.