Free, Open and Powerful

OpenOffice.Org, the free office productivity applications suite, may not be perfect. But then again, what is? Catherine Yong investigates.

What makes an already good tool better? Perhaps it is the number of upgrades it undergoes. Maybe it’s how completely it crushes its competitors. Maybe it’s because you get free ice cream with it, or maybe it’s the addition of a nice salesgirl.

Or maybe the true measure of how good a personal productivity suite really is could be judged from the number of users it has.

We know that premium products come with premium prices. And when it comes to personal productivity software, Microsoft’s are right up there. As the industry draws in a long deep breath in anticipation of the next big upgrade after Microsoft Office System in 2003, for the first time in a long while IT departments are starting to look at viable alternatives to the software giant’s products. One of these is the open-source OpenOffice software suite (

Open Office.Org
Fondly termed OOo by the developers who helped build it, this license-free productivity software consists of components that may be found in a standard Microsoft Office suite. Drawing inspiration from the de facto standard, Open Office also has its own versions of Word (WRITER), Excel (CALC), PowerPoint (IMPRESS) and even something extra for sprucing up documents — DRAW. What has to be one of its most useful elements however is its ability to work across most platforms — Microsoft Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD and Solaris.

So, where do these free but powerful utilities come from? In Germany in the mid eighties, the first authors of StarOffice (, StarDivision was founded. Sun Microsystems bought it in 1999 and StarOffice 5.2 was released a year later in June 2000 by Sun Microsystems. But something else was also put into motion in 1999 — when Sun Microsystems released StarOffice, they also made StarOffice’s code publicly available. It was the beginning of the biggest Open Source Project of its kind.

StarOffice went on to be a commercial office productivity suite, but the spin-off — OpenOffice software — remains very much free and thriving under the machinations of an open developer community. To make the most of not just an open community but one that is also diverse and spanning the globe, localisation projects are in progress for thirty languages ranging from Aynu (Japan), to Hebrew to Hindi to Czech. Projek Singa Emas is the Malay Language’s very own localization effort within Malaysia, and a pre-release of 1.1.0 in Malay is already available from MIMOS Berhad ( In fact, the successful StarOffice (RM150) product has not severed all ties with its free, thriving-in-the-wild, hippie sibling. There is a dedicated StarOffice engineer at work on its source code, and at regular intervals, a snapshot is taken of it to productise the StarOffice suite. Technical support for OOo is also on offer from Sun Microsystems in addition to free community support.

What more could we possibly need?
In this day and age, it is never enough to own just a computer. A computer is nothing without an operating system (unless one speaks the mysterious languages that computers do). The same can be said if it does not come equipped with basic productivity software like word-processing and presentation or graphics applications. The OpenCD initiative ( comprises a collection of quality and free open source programs like OpenOffice, AbiWord, PDFCreator, Mozilla and more. With its zero-price tag it not only aims to ensure that computer owners have at least their most basic needs fulfilled, but also that as many computer owners as possible are able to do so.

Closer to home, something similar is happening with the “One Home, One PC” campaign. A sub-RM1,000 computer running on the Linux platform and equipped with OpenOffice is one of the packages on offer for this MECM (Ministry of Energy, Communications and Multimedia) and PIKOM effort to encourage computer literacy (

Colin Charles, marketing community contact for OOo in Malaysia comments: “There is take-up of the OOo suite amongst companies but of those on a smaller scale.” Soreon Research, a Swiss consultancy, revealed that companies can save 20-percent on office software by using the OOo suite. Reductions in these kinds of costs can be attributed to its free license and also minimising personnel implementing Linux.

Free open source programs like these is also a good step toward fighting piracy. Rather than footing a hefty bill, some companies do resort to using illegal software. Companies that use free license tools instead need not ever look over their shoulders every now and then for worry of being caught by the Business Software Alliance (BSA). There are also less buggy problems to face when using free openware than with illegal pirated programs.

Out of the box
First off, this license-free software doesn’t come in a box. It’s completely free and available off the Net at a size of 63.5MB for Windows (size is a little bit more on other operating platforms). Those with painfully slow connections can opt for CDs which can be gotten from worldwide distributors listed here (

When it was first designed, the objective was to have a tightly integrated office productivity tool. As a result all five (add Database User Tools to the earlier mentioned four) of its components work together in all sense of the word — having the same look, feel as well as easy access and interopera bility amongst applications.

To demonstrate how much of a hassle this cuts down on, imagine having a standard and uniform SpellChecker options across all applications as opposed to having to launch and set them individually. Most of the functions which you usually use on MS Office can also be found here, but only under different names. The more observant user would ask right off: “Where’s my Outlook equivalent?” Well, there isn’t just one, but quite a few to choose from. Charles states Evolution and Thunderbird as two worth considering. The more discerning ones would also notice a noticeable lag when opening files. Ah… the cons of having true interoperability amongst the tools, perhaps? But, these are the least of OOo’s problems. They have a bigger one — facing the die-hard, “Microsoft-only” mentality.

Lingering habits
When I decided to ditch my old and obsolete Nokia for a free, colour-screen Philips, the differences I had to get used to were glaringly obvious. All the buttons and functions that I wanted to get to were just not where they used to be. Text messaging, my most-used application, became something which I dreaded big time. But, stuck with it I did, as most of you may have done as well. After all, it was just a matter of getting used to it.

The same however, cannot be said of computer office program tools, especially when one has to use it at work.

Colin Charles has been involved with the project ever since the beginning. “Compared to three years ago, the suite is working much better and a whole lot faster,” he says. It has a list of accolades to its name and even how-to publications ( Colin’s own website has downloadable training manuals (

An estimated download figure to date is over 16 million, with more to be added when one considers CD availability. But, how does that compete with another product that already has more than 90-percent market share? What is preventing the widespread adoption of this powerful and cheaper alter-native, like that of Microsoft’s massive prevalence?

Charles shares that OOo “never aims to be a clone of Microsoft Office.” OOo may not have much choice in the matter though – MS Office seems to have figured and worked out all the possible applications that an enterprise user would want in an office productivity suite – their Microsoft Office System with its slew of components on offer is just one testament of this.

So, how does a good tool become better? Competition may be the answer. That being said, one still gets the feeling that no matter how successful OOo becomes as a replacement to MS Office, they will never be completely rid of its ghost.

Same-same, but different
Sibling rivalry? Not quite.’s objectives are to provide open access to their source code, as is not the case with StarOffice. caught up with Koh Eng Kiong, Software Manager for Sun Microsystems Malaysia who further explains that the OOo source code is available under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) and Sun Industry Standards Source License (SISSL).

“The source code available at does not consist of all of the StarOffice code. Usually, the reason for this is that Sun pays to license third-party code to be included in StarOffice which it does not have permission to make available in”

The differences between the two exist from these aspects:
• Certain fonts (including, especially, Asian language fonts)
• The database component (Adabas D)
• Some templates
• Extensive Clip Art Gallery
• Some sorting functionality (Asian versions)
• Certain file filters

Another important difference worth noting is support — premium enterprise support services are available 24/7. Basically, customers have a choice of an enterprise-strength StarOffice or a lean but still mean OpenOffice.

Weaning away from MS Office
Not easy at all

Those who’ve used it all the time for working on documents and completely rely on it may turn green at the prospect of re-learning new software. Impress and Calc, the OOo equivalent of PowerPoint and Excel respectively, have displayed software compatibility problems with Microsoft’s; there have even been comments that Excel’s functions and command options leaves Calc’s in the dust.

However, here are a few enticers that may persuade to you to at least download the suite and give it a test drive. When you consider the goodies that OOo has to offer, what’s a little bit of learning curve?
1. Zero price-tag with and a free license - all this for five compelling tools.
2. User test groups show that Writer presented the fewest file-format compatibility problems compared to Microsoft Word.
3. PDF files can be saved in the Writer application. This definitely saves cost.
4. Support for saving presentations in Flash format is available. This is most helpful for jazzing up boring slides. An active OOo community that is constantly building, innovating and solving!

The truth is out there
OpenOffice is only the tip of a huge endless iceberg of open source activity. If you’d like to know what else is out there, check out these links:
1. Here are some smaller apps, applets, games and so on, which you can use with your Windows OS. A nice warm-up for Open Source programs users who are newly or about to be initiated.
2. A whole collection of apps from file compression tools, graphics tools, a word processing program to games. Very Windows-compatible.
3. StarOffice 7, the new and latest improved version that is causing waves especially since the Chinese Government is planning to implement it. It’s 5.2 version shares the same source code with OOo.
4. a very comprehensive site with comprehensive list of apps. Not just an office suite, but a free one specially designed for a K Desktop Environment (KDE) on Unix/Linux workstations. Kewl!
5. Here’s the place to see developer communities at work, or even better still, participate in some projects. It provides free services to Open Source developers as well. Oodles and oodles of code and apps can be found here.