2004-12-13

OpenOffice: An Office Alternative?


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OpenOffice.org boasts "a free productivity suite compatible with all major office suites." Download here.

For openers, I've just installed it and browsed the pieces and features, so anything I say is not rooted in extensive use of OpenOffice at this point.

First, all the pieces are there: word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, and database. OO features the ability to open and create documents in all major office program formats. To test my install I opened one of my existing Word documents and was pleased. This particular document featured a big table and quite a bit of special formatting. OO's text editior didn't miss a beat. I also opened a several-page workbook, heavy in links and a variety of cell reference types and a lot of special formatting. Once again, OO appears to have performed like a champ.

At first blush, OO has much to excite a die-hard MS Office user like myself. It appears that every piece of the suite can create a .pdf file which, for anyone who shares data with any frequency, is huge. There also appears to be robust support for html, web-authoring, xml and other items which should be mandatory these days, but are often lacking or too complicated to be practical in office suites.

The database tools also show promise. But here is one of my tradeoffs: interactivity with MS Access files seems quetionable which is neither surprising or alarming. MS Access is the most proprietary part of the MS Office suite. Unfortunately for me, it is also a tool with which I am very comfortable. However, I recognize that Access is easy to use but also accomodates less than sound database admin practices. So, there will be a little bit of learning involved for me, but then again, this was education I was needing anyway.

Another tradeoff: macros and programming. I'm a big fan of Visual Basic. I have a number of general utilities in my toolbox and lean on VB to alleviate difficult or cumbersome data-handling projects. I'm guessing that OO won't support my macros. They do however offer both the ability to record macros, and their own programming language called "BASIC." So, I will be exploring this further.

So, this is not MS Office. Obviously that has all the Linux geeks crazy excited about it. But, it does appear to be a capable alternative, which is nice.

As an accountant, I'm here to say that MS Excel is the standard in business. I'm sure there are plenty of organizations out there that use a different spreadsheet product. But, the vast majority use Excel, along with the vast majority of accountants. If you find yourself in a financial data-sharing situation, such as an audit or financial statement distribution and can not handle or produce an Excel file, you've significantly added to your workload.

In the past I've dealt with files from alternative programs, in many cases a Linux-based spreadsheet program, which were horrid. First they didn't share formatting well at all. Best case, they simply dropped any special format instruction. More commonly they produced a bastardized rendering of the original. There were also issues with anything beyond basic formulae. So, OO's apparent flexibility is refreshing.

Also, I must admit that sometimes MS Word drives me up the wall with the way it handles formatting. Perhaps WordStar and later WordPerfect wrecked me for any other word processor. None-the-less, a word processor is not optional. So, I'd like to think that OO will be a strong alternative here.

In conclusion, OpenOffice appears to offer a strong, feature-rich package in which the average MS Office user will sacrifice little, if at all. Best of all, it's free!

Do I see myself abandoning MS Office and embracing OpenOffice? Not even close! But, I do see using both programs in parallel, and taking advantage of the features of each.



Initial summary: Positives

- Excellent interaction with MS Office documents and workbooks
- Cost: FREE!
- An excellent selection of web-authoring tools
- .pdf output available in all pieces of the package

Initial summary: Negatives

- Some MS Office features not supported
- Interactivity with MS Access not as complete as other parts of the package
- A new macro / programming language

Thanks to Slashdot for pointing this one out.

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