NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, April 2010
OpenOffice 3.2 – Free Competitor to Microsoft Office
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
(click to email author)


For only the third time in the ten years that I have been writing this column, I am not using Microsoft Word as my word processor to write this column. For one column about three years ago, I used the then new Google Docs to compose my column, and saved the output in the Word format requested by the Examiner. About two years prior to that, I used the then new OpenOffice as my word processor for a column about OpenOffice. Now that a new release of OpenOffice, version 3.2, is available which includes full file compatibility with Microsoft Office 2007, I concluded that it was worthy of another look. My first impression of this new version is very positive, as it has much the same look and feel of the Microsoft products that I have been using almost exclusively for the past many years. I had no learning curve with OpenOffice, and proceeded to use it immediately. While this new version can read and write files in the latest Microsoft formats, and is so feature rich that it would be a worthy competitor to Microsoft Office, it does have one overwhelming advantage over Microsoft Office; that is that it is totally free to download and use by anyone. Unlike some other “free” software that is only free for personal use, but mandates a fee for corporate or academic use, OpenOffice is absolutely free for all users.

I have been considering writing an updated review of OpenOffice for quite a while, as it has been garnering a lot of positive reviews in the media, but two recent events provided me with the impetus to write this review today. First is that a new version of OpenOffice was recently released (version 3.2), which included several enhancements and compatibility improvements with the latest Microsoft Office file formats. The other reason was an email I received today asking for help, “we have an 80 year old man, recently lost his wife... his computer went out, so we went and got one from . Question, is there a program like Microsoft word that we can download free for him. He has to write letters and makes signs for his lodge. i have done searches but am afraid to download something that may not work. thank you in advance!!” . I replied back with the link to OpenOffice, which will do what this gentleman wants, and much more.

OpenOffice is a large download (149 megs) and is available from OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice is also one of the most widely downloaded suites on the internet, with over 100 million copies of version 3 downloaded within the past year, with millions more of the earlier versions being downloaded. With numbers like these, OpenOffice has earned a large and loyal following. OpenOffice is not just for English speaking Windows users, as it is available in 80 of the world's languages, and for almost all popular operating systems including GNU/Linux, Sun Solaris, and Apple Mac. It is simple enough for a novice user to master, and comprehensive enough for an experienced office suite user. According to the OpenOffice web page, “OpenOffice.org 3 is easy to learn, and if you're already using another office software package, you'll take to OpenOffice.org 3 straight away. Our world-wide native-language community means that OpenOffice.org 3 is probably available and supported in your own language. And if you already have files from another office package - OpenOffice.org 3 will probably read them with no difficulty.” To test this, I opened a variety of word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation files created in Microsoft Office, and all opened successfully. I then created some similar files with OpenOffice, saved them in the appropriate Microsoft format, and my copy of Microsoft Office opened them without a hiccup. I also tried opening some old WordPerfect (word processor) and Quattro (spreadsheet) files with OpenOffice, and they also opened and displayed flawlessly. The listing of file formats available for import or export with OpenOffice is nothing less than spectacular, with every format I could think of listed, as well as many I am not familiar with. If an unusual document format is encountered, OpenOffice can likely open it.

I am currently typing this using the OpenOffice Writer, which is the word processor included in the suite. When I first opened it, it looked almost identical to my Microsoft Word, and all of the keyboard shortcuts that I used regularly in Word, worked flawlessly in Writer. Writer can read and write many more file formats than Word, and has an integral PDF creator to make PDF files out of any documents that can be opened or created with OpenOffice. Writer is feature rich including auto correct, auto complete, auto format, styles and formatting, text frames and linking, automated table of contents, indexing, bibliography, references, illustrations, tables, and other features found on its expensive commercial competitors. I searched and tried, but I could not find any feature missing on Writer that is available on the commercial products.

I have been using Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet utility for several years for a variety of financial and data tasks. Excel has a near monopoly in industry as the spreadsheet of choice, replacing the classical Lotus and Quattro, both of which I used extensively in the past. I opened several of my Excel spreadsheets in OpenOffice's Calc, and they opened without any problems. Calc looks just like Excel, and has a similar menu and command set, which meant that there was nothing new for me to learn in order to master Calc. I tried creating color graphs and charts in Calc, and the same skills set I have for Excel worked fine on Calc. I have used a lot of the integral calculation functions in Excel, and they were all available in Calc. A Function Wizard in Calc makes the implementation and inclusion of mathematical and statistical functions very easy. Calc has proven itself to be a very worthy competitor to Excel at a price that can not be beat (free!).

Microsoft's PowerPoint is the defacto standard for presentation software, and I have used it frequently for the many presentations that I have done. OpenOffice has a very capable competitor with its Impress, which can read and write PowerPoint files as well as most other presentation formats. Impress looks very similar to PowerPoint, and like the other components in OpenOffice, employs a similar menu structure and keyboard shortcut set. Special effects, transitions, sounds, video, and other features are integral with Impress, allowing the user to do anything that he can do in PowerPoint. Impress files can be printed as PDF files by simply clicking on File – Export as PDF, or exported into dozens of other file formats, including most graphical formats, and the web page HTML format, by clicking on File – Export. This same process can be used to create a video in Macromedia Flash SWF format, where the Impress presentation can be viewed as a video, with a mouse click advancing to the next slide. Impress is a powerful presentation utility, and is very capable of being used to create very professional appearing presentations that can be played on almost any computer. Impress can also be freely used to show PowerPoint presentations even if the user does not have PowerPoint.

Many of us use a lot of images and graphics for a variety of purposes, and these images often need to be edited, cropped, have captions or labels inserted, merged, or otherwise manipulated. While there are many commercial and freeware utilities that can perform these tasks, OpenOffice has a utility aptly named Draw that can be used as a free standing but comprehensive imaging editor, which is also integrated into the other OpenOffice functions. Draw can import, export, and edit almost all graphic formats, including JPG, GIF, BMP, WMF, PNG, TIFF, Kodak Photo CD PCD, and many other graphic formats. In addition to manipulating graphics, Draw also has “smart connectors” that can be used to quickly create flowcharts, organization charts, network diagrams, and other forms of diagrams and charts. When used with the Writer word processor, Draw is capable of being used to create posters, brochures, pamphlets, and other items for display or distribution.

Another common utility incorporated in most office suites is some form of database utility, and OpenOffice is no different by including a comprehensive database utility with the simple name Base. Base can be used to create or modify tables, forms, queries, and reports. With its own HQSL database engine, Base can be used to manage information and data, or the user can use a variety of wizards, design views, or SQL views. I am personally not a database wizard, but I was able to quickly create a simple data base using Base, and mine it for information and reports.

The entire OpenOffice suite has over 500 free “extensions” available which can be used to enhance the capabilities of OpenOffice. These extensions add dictionaries in many languages, forms, templates, clip art galleries, and many other features. One that I especially like is Sun PDF Import Extension, which allows the user to import and modify PDF documents. Another extension that I will be trying is the “Presenter Console” which gives the presenter more control over his presentation by showing the upcoming slide, slide notes, and a presentation timer. What is unusual is that only the presenter sees this console, while the audience only sees the current slide. The hundreds of other extensions available provide a wealth of additional capabilities to OpenOffice.

For those who would sometimes prefer to use pre-made templates to accomplish a variety of tasks, OpenOffice has hundreds of free templates available at templates.services.openoffice.org. Templates come in three primary categories, Business, Education, and Private, with over 600 available templates. Some of the most popular templates include several resume formats, calendars, business cards, business letters, brochures and pamphlets, newsletters, meal planners, automated invoices, greeting cards, APA-style templates that would be suitable for college or university students, fax cover sheets, weekly planners, recipe cards, and hundreds of others. By using a template, complex tasks may be as easy as filling in the blanks, and producing professional appearing output.

OpenOffice has been adopted as a standard office suite by hundreds of colleges and universities, government agencies at all levels, businesses of all sizes, and millions of individuals. Some countries have also adopted OpenOffice as a national standard office suite, as well as many cities. At least one US state has adopted OpenOffice as its standardized office suite, much to the consternation of Microsoft and its supporters. I have been recommending OpenOffice to my students as a free alternative to Microsoft Office. In these tight fiscal times, switching to a free open source office suite that can read and write almost all of the existing Office formats might make a lot of sense. The State of Texas, for example, has set Microsoft Word as the defacto standard for state documents; with massive budget cuts being implemented statewide (including at my college), imagine how much money could be saved by phasing in the free OpenOffice as a replacement for the very costly Microsoft Office. Anyone who currently uses Microsoft Office can instantly use OpenOffice, and with its outstanding file compatibility, almost nothing would be lost from any existing Office documents.

Sorry Microsoft, but the free OpenOffice may possibly displace you as the predominant office suite. Free is a very hard price to beat.

Click here to return to top