NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2008
OpenOffice 3.0 – Comprehensive Free Office Suite
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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Unlike almost all previous columns, I am not typing this using a Microsoft Office product. Despite not using a Microsoft Office product, I currently feel quite comfortable, and have not noted any learning curve necessary to use this new product. I was able to download, install and run this alternative product, and it looks and feels just like the Microsoft Word that I have been using for many years. The only major difference that I can see between what I am using at this instant, and Microsoft Office is the dramatic difference in the price of these two competing products. The product I am using right now is totally free, and can be downloaded and distributed free without any strings attached. The product I am using to type this column is the word processor named Writer, part of the the recently released OpenOffice 3.0, available for free download at OpenOffice.org. For compatibility purposes, I have chosen to save this file in the Word “.doc” format, but I could have chosen from any of about two dozen word processing formats to save this document. It should be noted that the new version 3.0 of OpenOffice can now open all of the new data formats used in Office 2007, including the new “.docx” and the other new formats.

OpenOffice has been around for years, and millions of copies have been downloaded. OpenOffice.org has just released a new and improved version, 3.0, which has many enhancements, new features, and additional format options compared to the previous versions. Since it can read and write virtually all contemporary office formats from word processors, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation programs, including Microsoft Office products. OpenOffice is appropriate for all users of office products, including household use, academic use, business use, and government use. On the OpenOffice website are listings of hundreds of organizations and agencies, including colleges and universities around the world, that have adopted the free OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office or other commercial office suites. For some of my fiscally struggling college students, I have explicitly recommended OpenOffice as a free alternative to purchasing Microsoft Office, or using the low-featured Works program often included on many computers.

While Writer, the OpenOffice word processor, has the same look and feel of Word, it is not alone in the suite, as OpenOffice is a comprehensive suite of office utilities. On the opening menu are descriptive icons simply labeled Text Document, Presentation, Database, Spreadsheet, Drawing, and Formula. Additional icons on the menu will open preconfigured templates, open existing documents, and link to additional features.

I do a lot of presentations for groups and organizations, and I have exclusively been using Microsoft's popular PowerPoint program. As I am typing this, I am opening one of my recent identity theft presentations made in PowerPoint in another window using the OpenOffice presentation program, Impress. Impress opened my PowerPoint file quickly and easily, and looks just like a PowerPoint window. Using Impress, which has virtually all of the features of PowerPoint, the user can create and present professional presentations without the expense of PowerPoint. In some ways, Impress may have some features missing in PowerPoint, including an improved list of backgrounds and templates, and tabs on the top of the display to show notes, outlines, handouts, and the slide sorter.

Many of us routinely use a spreadsheet for a variety of financial, statistical, or data uses. OpenOffice has an excellent spreadsheet appropriately named “Calc”. I just opened up one of my Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (.xls format) in Calc, and it opened quickly and looks just like Excel. All of the formulas calculated properly in Calc that were created in Excel, all columns were formatted correctly, and graphs displayed properly. I also opened an Excel 2007 spreadsheet, and a Corel Quattro workbook in Calc, and they both opened flawlessly. If someone already knows how to use a spreadsheet, Calc is a “no brainer” in that it is intuitive and requires no additional training or experience to use. As with other OpenOffice applications, it can open almost all other spreadsheet formats, and write to many of the contemporary formats.

While among the least used office utilities, database programs are an integral part of almost all office suites, and OpenOffice is no different. Its database is simple called “Base” and is as full featured as its costly competitors. Base can use wizards to create a database, or utilize the countless templates available either in the program or on line at OpenOffice.org. Experienced database users will quickly recognize the Base window, as the icons and commands are substantially the same as those used in Access and Approach. Those who know how to use Access or Approach can immediately use Base without any significant learning curve, and can be productive immediately.

One feature available in OpenOffice that is lacking in many competitive suites is a comprehensive photo and image editor, called Draw. Draw enables the user to create, edit, crop, modify, or other wise change digital images. As is common with other OpenOffice utilities, Draw can open almost every common image format, and write to them as well. Those who are graphically creative will find Draw to be an adequate image editor that can do what many of the free standing image editors can do, but Draw does it for free. For those with digital cameras, Draw can easily edit and crop digital photos, and convert them to any other desired format.

Some technical users, such as engineers, mathematicians, and physicists may need a sophisticated editor that can process formulas in a variety of formats. “Math” is the integral utility that performs the function of creating simple or complex formulas that can be imported into other documents or presentations. Math can read and write data formats used by other leading mathematical programs.

OpenOffice is a large download in Windows format, a 145mb download. In addition to Windows, OpenOffice is available for almost all other platforms, including Mac. For those who need an office suite in foreign languages, this one is available in over 50 languages, making it ideal for a multinational organization that needs a single office suite that can handle multiple languages. While the dictionary integral with this suite consists of tens of thousands of words, specialty dictionaries in many languages are available as a free download from the OpenOffice.org website (http://extensions.services.openoffice.org/dictionary). In addition to dictionaries, there are also dozens of free, open source templates available for each of the utilities that can incorporate multiple languages in a single file, or add functionality, such as a template to create an academic grade book. In addition to templates, dictionaries, and hundreds of other add-ons, there is also an extensive on line support system, where experienced users will offer free support to new users.

For the price, free, you will not find a better office suite than OpenOffice. With its high level of compatibility with Microsoft office and other office suites, OpenOffice 3.0 is a wise choice for most computer users, no matter what the modern platform or language.

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