Open and Powerful
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 (www.openoffice.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 (www.staroffice.org),
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 OpenOffice.org 1.1.0 in Malay is
already available from MIMOS Berhad (www.mimos.my) 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
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 (www.pcgemilang.com.my).
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 (http://distribution.openoffice.org/cdrom/sellers.html).
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,
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 (http://www.taming-openoffice-org.com/).
Colin’s own website has downloadable training manuals (www.bytebot.net).
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.
OpenOffice.org’s objectives are to provide open access to their source
code, as is not the case with StarOffice. PC.com 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
“The source code available at OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org.”
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
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
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
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
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.
A whole collection of apps from file compression tools, graphics tools,
a word processing program to games. Very Windows-compatible.
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.
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!
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