The New Office
In a follow up to our last article, I thought I should mention a new productivity suite. Actually, it's not new: it's been around for awhile, but has gone by several names, including StarDivision StarOffice, Sun StarOffice, and now OpenOffice.org. What is new about the productivity suite is that it is now an open source project. To programmers, this means one thing, the details of which I won't bore you with here. To the rest of the world, however, this means that you can download the OpenOffice.org suite of programs, install and run them for free.
OpenOffice.org recently released their first version of the productivity suite. It is clear that their intentions in many areas were to mimic the way other popular programs look and function. Consequently, most people familiar with Microsoft Office will be comfortable using OpenOffice.org. If you try OpenOffice.org, don't expect it to be completely intuitive, but don't expect the learning curve to be much greater than that from going from one version of Microsoft Office to another.
The OpenOffice.org developers also spent quite a bit of effort making their suite compatible with Microsoft file formats such as Microsoft Word documents. This means that if you have old Microsoft Office documents or that someone or some web site shares a Microsoft document with you, you should be able to view it using OpenOffice.org. As noted in the last article, however, such "compatibility" tends to be lacking. In most cases, you'll be able to see all the content, but the formatting, such as text alignment, will be incorrect.
Though the OpenOffice.org suite contains a word processor (like Microsoft Word), a spread sheet application (like Microsoft Excel or Lotus 123), a simple painting program and a presentation manager (a la Microsoft PowerPoint), the suite is missing a database application, e-mail client, and personal information manager (PIM). Microsoft Office contains each of these in it's Access and Outlook programs. However, Access is only included in some versions of the Microsoft Office suite.
Nevertheless, you can use the lite version of Outlook, Microsoft Outlook Express, for free to check and send e-mail. It is usually installed by default on most computers or is a part of the Microsoft Internet Explorer download, available for free from their site.However, you will need another program for maintaining your calendar, appointments and tasks. Unfortunately, I can't name a free program that handles these functions -- well, at least not one that I recommend using. If you absolutely must have a calendaring program, you may want to purchase Microsoft Outlook separate from the entire Microsoft Office suite of programs. By itself, it usually costs somewhere around $100.
So, should you use OpenOffice.org? To be honest, I only recommend it for businesses or individuals on a tight budget. At anywhere from $300 to $900, the cost of commercial office suites are not exactly short money, but they aren't a bad investment either. To put it another way, if you can afford Microsoft Office, just buy it. You'll save yourself a good deal of time and aggravation in the long run because you'll be using what the rest of the world uses.
If you already own Microsoft Office, there is little reason to switch to OpenOffice.org. You've already got a product with more features and functionality. The upgrade cost is relatively short money, and it ensures the greatest compatibility when sharing files with other people or downloading them from the web.
If, however, you're starting a business or you just need a way to print papers for school, you may want to give OpenOffice.org a shot. Be warned, though, that the download is over 50 MB. So, you may want to start the download before you go to bed and let it run all night.