Some of the Best Things Are Free: Pt. 4 - Office Suites

posted Jan 6, 2010, 9:24 AM by John Werner   [ updated Jan 11, 2010, 10:16 AM ]
Every office PC seems to come with a basic set of tools: E-mail, Web Browser, Word Processor, and Spreadsheet. In this article, I'll take a look at some free alternatives for E-mail, Word Processing, and Spreadsheets.  (I'm going to very consciously avoid the "browser wars.")

Word Processors and Spreadsheets are often part of a broader group of tools called an Office Suite.  I am leaving E-mail to a separate article as many people choose one "office suite" and another e-mail program.

Office Suites
Office suites are the basis of every electronic document these days.  When I first started using computers, a Word Processor was just that.  If you needed to create a spreadsheet, you used VisiCalc.  Presentation files were unheard of.  Now, we expect to be able to get a single package that provides Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Drawings, and Presentations.

OpenOffice.org - http://openoffice.org

Back in the early part of this millennium, I was introduced to a would be competitor to Microsoft Office (tm).  StarOffice was made by a German company and it worked very well.  One of the distinguishing features was that it was written from the ground up to be an integrated suite, something that it's more popular Redmond based competitor could not say about its offering.

About the same time I noticed StarOffice, Sun Microsystems also noticed them.  Soon after Sun acquired StarOffice and added it to their portfolio.  They also did something rather remarkable, they released an Open Source version of StarOffice called OpenOffice.org.  Both products are still offered.  The only real difference between the products is that StarOffice comes with some "elements" that aren't available in OpenOffice.org.  Quiet honestly, I can't tell you what those "elements" are, and Sun's own website doesn't say much more than "With the core binaries between StarOffice Software and OpenOffice.org the same,..." (http://www.sun.com/software/staroffice/faqs.jsp#g4)

Since this really is about OpenOffice.org, the free version, I'll stop talking about StarOffice except to say that the cost is only $35, which I believe essentially pays royalties from some of the extra elements.

OpenOffice.org runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows machines, just to name a few.  Since it is Open Source (which means the source code is freely available) it has been ported to some very interesting platforms, including the Nokia n810 Internet Tablet.  With a palm sized screen of 800x480 resolution, it is not the best device to use an office suite, but it is an interesting case study.  There is also a large community of people who have put together both template and extensions you can integrate.

One of my favorite features about OpenOffice.org is that every document, no matter what type, opens in it's own window.  This allows you to arrange your views of documents to suit your needs.  It may sound like a little thing, but some times it is the little things that really delight.

File Formats & Microsoft Compatibility

OpenOffice.org natively uses the ISO  standard Open Document Format (ODF) for storing it's files.  This format was developed to allow consistent document interchange between differing office products from differing manufactures (i.e. IBM, SUN, etc.).   Since the information in the document is stored in a compressed format, documents stored in ODF tend to be much smaller then those stored in some other formats.

Like it or not, Microsoft Office is well entrenched.  That means Microsoft Office's file formats are also well entrenched.  Luckily, OpenOffice.org can read and write all the standard Microsoft Office formats, including Microsoft's proprietary  XML formats (introduced in MS Office 2007).  Great lengths have been taken to make sure that both content and format are preserved.  I have very rarely seen any formatting issues when moving between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org.  I almost always see a speed improvement when working with OpenOffice.org, especially on very large MS Word files.

OpenOffice.org also supports both creating and editing PDF documents.  The creation is done by exporting the document as a PDF file.  The editing is actually done in the Drawing component.  All of the PDF docuements located in John's Documents were creat
ed with OpenOffice.org.

One of the common questions I have heard has to do with Macro compatibility.  In my experience, most Visual Basic macros written for MS Office work.  I can't really say that I have seen any VB macros that don't work.  I can say that I have been surprised that some very complex MS Excel macros for creating and scoring TSD road rallies worked without an issue in OpenOffice.org.

If you study the screen shots in this document, you will also see another difference - the layout of the menus is similar, but not quite the same.  The one thing that is probably the most confusing is how page settings are done.   IMHO, OpenOffice.org has put the page settings in the right place in the "Format" menu.

Another key difference between OpenOffice.org and MS Office is that OpenOffice.org does not include an e-mail client.  There are several good alternatives discussed later in this article.

Components

The major components of OpenOffice.org are Text Editor, Spreadsheet, Presentation, Drawing, Database, and Equation Editor.  I'll give a brief overview of each of these below.

Text Document - Writer

To me, the bread and butter of any office suite is the word processor.  OpenOffice.org Writer provides all of the features you would expect from a modern word processor, plus a couple you might not think of: tables, spell checking, outline numbering, WYSIWYG, page settings, character formats, mail merge, etc.  Writer also supports the export of your document as a PDF -- a great feature if you are worried that the format of your document could be changed.

For years, OpenOffice.org Writer has provided a Styles and Formatting window that allows the easy modifying of document styles, something that is fairly recent in MS Word.

Another winning feature is the Navigator Window.  This window provides a great view into your documents, and it allows the re-arranging of
sections.  It also can be used as a navigation window to quickly jump to different locations in your document.

So what is missing?  Having used both MS Word and OpenOffice.org side-by-side for nearly a decade, I can honestly say I have only found one feature missing: outline view.   Depending on who you are, this may or may not be important.  MS Word provides an Outline view of your document that allows you to both edit and re-arrange the document.  OpenOffice.org Writer does not.  The closest view thing that is offered is the Navigator Window.  While this allows you to re-arrange the document and see the overall structure, it does not allow actual editting of anything that is below the heading level.

Spreadsheet - Calc

It's hard to underestimate the usage and value of spreadsheets
.  I have seen spreadsheets used for everything from calculating numbers, to storing data, to creating forms, and even creating very complex table driven documents. OpenOffice.org Calc supports all of the standard features one expects from a spreadsheet program, including the ability to read and write MS Excel files, write formulas, sum areas, do statistics, and create graphs.  Like Writer, OpenOffice.org Calc supports the direct exporting of a spreadsheet to a PDF file.

Like with Writer, Calc also has a Navigator Window.

Having used both MS Excel and OpenOffice.org Calc at the same time, I did find one interesting difference worth noting: many calculation functions that have to be specifically enabled (or added) to MS Excel are always available in Calc.

Presentations - Impress


OpenOffice.org uses the same program, Impress, to create presentations as it does to create drawings, Impress.

In presentation mode, Impress is your standard presentation authoring program.  It comes with the normal views you expect from a presentation program: Outline, Slide Sorter, Notes, Hand-outs, and Normal (or single slide).  Impress can read and write MS PowerPoint files, along with the Open Document Format Presentation format.

Compatibility with Microsoft PowerPoint is very good, but not always perfect -- sometimes the appearances change subtly.  Since presentations tend to be very carefully laid out, I would recommend that if you expect to be using PowerPoint to display it, you should at least check your presentation with a Microsoft PowerPoint Viewer just to check them.

Drawings - Impress

As a drawing tool, Impress does just that.  Impress is a vector drawing program.OpenOffice.org's drawing tool, Impress, is a quite powerful tool. I have found myself using it for doing everything from simple Org-charts to flowcharts to even creating birthday cards.

Impress has the standard vector drawing program features, including basic shapes, lines, textures, and gradients.  It also supports connectors (lines that remain connected to objects no matter where they are moved) and multi-page drawings.  One of the particularly interesting features about Impress is its ability to convert a bitmap image into a vector image.
  This can yield some very interesting effects, especially if the 2D image is then converted into a 3D, perspective image.

Impress does fail to impress with the list of supported file formats it can read and save.  In addition to saving PDF files, it can also edit them.  As for reading / writing standard vector drawing formats other than ODG, I have been as yet unable to find anything.

Database

The database component of OpenOffice.org, Base, does not support the reading and writing of Microsoft Access files.  There.  I've said it.  It does, however, allow you to create relation databases against a variety of database connections, including JDBC, ODBC, Oracle, MySQL, dBase, spreadsheets and others.   Yes, I did say spreadsheets.  The data for a database can be stored in a spreadsheet, and SQL queries can be run against it in OpenOffice.org's database application.

[In the first paragraph, I said that Microsoft Access files are not supported.  While technically correct, it is not entirely true.  On a computer with Microsoft Access, MS Access files can be opened through the ODBC interface.]

OpenOffice.org Database allow the creation and manipulation of tables, queries, forms, and reports.  Queries can be created in SQL, through a graphical editor, much like the one available in MS Access.  Wizards are provided for creating tables (the storage for the data), queries, forms, and reports.

As with other components in OpenOffice.org, PDF exporting is well supported.  Reports and forms can be exported to PDF and HTML.



Templates

Often, the usability of a particular office suite program comes down to the templates that are available to make your life easier. While OpenOffice.org does not come with a large number of templates when you download it, there is a very active community that is creating templates (and other add-ons) for it, and to be quite honest, I am very impressed with how much they have created.

Access to new templates is found by going to the File menu, selecting "New", then selecting "Templates and Documents."  At the bottom of the window that opens up, there is an option to "Get more templates online...."




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