June 20, 2002
The Office Software That Roared
It was true: the programs of Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook) seemed as permanent in our lives as the sun, the moon and Windows error messages. Its rivals I.B.M.'s Lotus suite and Corel's WordPerfect suite, for example were pretty much the same thing for pretty much the same price, and never posed much of a threat. The world waited for a contender that was so compelling, people might actually consider filing for Microsoft divorce.
Now there is one. It's called OpenOffice, and it has a killer feature: it's free.
Like Microsoft Office, OpenOffice whose official name is OpenOffice.org 1.0 comes with a word processor, a spreadsheet program and a slide-show program. It lacks an e-mail program and database, but does have a powerful graphics program and a Web-page editor. Amazingly, all this fits in a 50-megabyte download from www.openoffice.org. You have your choice of 27 languages and three operating systems: Windows, Linux or Solaris. (A Mac OS X version is in the works.)
How could such a sweet suite be free? OpenOffice is what's called an open-source project: a carefully orchestrated group effort by programmers all over the world, donating their time and talent to making a dent in the Microsoft monopoly.
That's not to imply that the software isn't polished, stable and fast; it is. Still, if the notion of global-community-as-software-company makes you uneasy (who gets the call for tech support?), you can also buy a boxed copy of the software from Sun, which started and coordinates the OpenOffice project. For $76 compared with $580 for the full Microsoft Office Sun's version, called StarOffice, offers a few goodies the free version lacks, including extra fonts and clip art, a printed user manual, a database program and, above all, a phone number for (fee-based) technical help. Corporations can buy StarOffice in large quantities for as little as $25 per copy.
The timing couldn't be more interesting. Already, there have been rumblings of discontent in the Microsoft Office congregation, thanks to new twists in Office XP that some find disturbing. For example, Office is now copy-protected, meaning that you can't use it until you've "activated" it (transmitted or phoned in your serial number to Microsoft) a feature that prevents its being installed on more than two computers.
That business about corporate discounts may be even more important. When you're the person in charge of installing a new Office version on 500 or 5,000 PC's, the expense and disruption can be a major migraine. It's as if you're recommending heart transplants for everyone in your family at once.
Until now, when companies wanted to upgrade, Microsoft offered discounted upgrade kits. That will end on July 31. After that, Microsoft will offer Software Assurance, a program in which companies pay Microsoft an annual fee for the right to upgrade if Microsoft releases a new version of Office. That may be a money-saver for companies that religiously upgrade, but it's a pricey proposition for companies that skip Office generations especially because Microsoft may not, in fact, unveil any new versions at all during the three-year contract. (Companies may choose not to take part in this program, but then when a new Office version comes along, they'll have to buy all new copies instead of upgrade kits.)
Not surprisingly, a number of organizations aren't thrilled by the new plan. In short, the arrival of OpenOffice and StarOffice is perfectly timed.
So how is the software itself? Critics have accused Microsoft of pilfering ideas from its competitors, but wait till they get a load of OpenOffice. This suite couldn't resemble Microsoft Office more if you ran it through a photocopier. The menu commands, terminology and even keyboard shortcuts are nearly identical. It's all here: tables, columns, edit tracking, multiple simultaneous text selections, AutoCorrect, AutoFormat, squiggly lines beneath misspellings and so on.
This shameless mimicry is a calculated move, of course, designed to make it easy for people to switch from Microsoft to Open. You'll uncover what few differences exist in one afternoon of fumbling.
The big question is compatibility: If OpenOffice can't read and save standard Microsoft Office documents, it's dead in the water. No matter how little you paid, it's not much use if you can't exchange files with the other 94 percent.
In general, OpenOffice scores very well here. On simple documents a book chapter, a home-finance spreadsheet, your basic bullet-points slide show the translation is flawless. On complex documents, OpenOffice mangles minor formatting: a dashed line between two cells of a table becomes solid light gray, graphic objects on PowerPoint slides aren't quite the same colors, you lose the font formatting of editorial-comment balloons and so on. OpenOffice can't run macros written in Microsoft's programming language, either. (On the bright side, you're therefore safe from Word and Excel macro viruses.)
Your happiness with OpenOffice may boil down to your tolerance for these conversion issues. If most of the documents you work with are heavily formatted, you'll spend a few minutes per document tweaking line thicknesses, cell borders and so on. If not, you have nothing to lose. Your collaborators need never know what a cheapskate you are.
Meanwhile, OpenOffice improves on Microsoft in a number of areas. It's nice to have a proper Font menu (showing font names in their actual typefaces) at the top of the window, instead of on a toolbar that may not be open. It's also a pleasure to be able to open any kind of OpenOffice document (text, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing) from the File menu of any of its programs. If you have Sun's StarOffice, you can color-coordinate graphics to match the color scheme of a presentation you're making.
Both Word and OpenOffice Writer let you set up abbreviations that when typed expand into longer words or phrases. But only OpenOffice offers to complete frequently used long words automatically, which quickly becomes a huge timesaver. Both OpenOffice and StarOffice capitalize the first word after a period, but OpenOffice lets you create a list of words that should not be followed by a capitalized word, like abbreviations.
Even so, the OpenOffice squadron hasn't quite duplicated the polish of Microsoft Office. OpenOffice has no grammar checker (of course, some would consider that a bonus, not a liability). The word processor idiotically flags any phrase containing a dash like this as a spelling error, and it will do a word count only for a whole document, not for just a section of it. Most annoying of all, closing a document also quits the program you're in (unless other documents are still open).
Fortunately, the open-source nature of OpenOffice.org holds tantalizing promise for improved versions. Anyone is permitted, even encouraged, to submit bug reports, wish lists of features and other feedback via the Web site. As a new droplet in the tidal wave of the open-source movement, you may even experience the thrill of watching your tiny input have an effect on the next version.
Some people should download OpenOffice immediately. That includes anyone who doesn't have Microsoft Office but would like the ability to open and edit documents that other people send along. Conscientious objectors to the Microsoft monopoly should also rejoice, along with anyone who uses more than two PC's and doesn't feel like shelling out for a second or third copy of Microsoft Office.
For these people and anyone else who's minding the bottom line these
days, take note: Every now and then, you get what you don't pay for.