Open Office 2.0

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (829 Words)

OpenOffice logoI’ve been a user and promoter to friends / family of Open Office for some time, simply because as a tool for writing personal documents and keeping simple accounts etc it’s ideal. In my experience too many people use MS Office at work and assume it’s the only option, so either waste a lot of money on MS Office for home, pirate it, or use MS Works, which is frankly rubbish. Open Office has sufficed for all my personal and company needs over the last few years - there were a couple of known foibles with importing Word / Excel documents (like password protection and nested tables) but these didn’t trouble me much, and there were a couple of stylistic things that I would have liked changed, but again nothing that would make me lose any sleep.

The new OO v2.0 solves even those small foibles, and the end result is very pleasant indeed to use. It’s a bit prettier than previous versions, now has a desktop database system (not something I missed from 1.1 personally, since Access is far from my favorite product, but some people will find this useful), supports digitally signed documents, supports XForms, and various other niceties. Anyone coming from MS Office will take no time at all to adapt, and document import from the old MS formats has been flawless so far, not that I have much need for that at home anyway since all my documents are in Open Office 1.1 format.

As you may have heard, OO v2.0’s native document format is Open Document, which is a truly open XML format which is very likely to be an ISO standard very soon. Governments especially like this, because electronic document storage needs to be free of proprietary restrictions and be usable by anything, for anything, and never become obsolete. As we all know, the old MS Office binary formats have never been particularly robust and old ones are prone to compatibility issues (I’ve even had to fix a corrupted old Word document with Open Office more than once when Word refused to open it), and MS’s new ‘Open XML’ format is in fact, not that open due to a license agreement which seems to preclude use in GPL software, plus the filing by MS of numerous patents on the format which ensures their continued chokehold on Joe OfficeUser despite their warm & fuzzy marketing blurb. Open Document is not encumbered by any of this, and already people are beginning to vote with their wallets (or in the case of Open Office, without them ;)). I’m sure that Office 12 SPx will introduce Open Document support - it’s a matter of when rather than if, in my opinion - the danger then being of course that MS will then introduce their usual extensions and incompatibilities to the published standard in order to undermine the standard, which has been their usual approach to open standards before.

Despite being XML, in all cases I’ve found that converting a native .doc or .xls to the new OpenDocument .odt or .ods results in a smaller file than the original. This is because the OpenDocument format is compressed anyway (using the standard Zip compression method). Renaming an .odt to .zip for example allows you to open it with WinZip or equivalent and see that it’s just a series of plain text XML files, plus any embedded binary files. META-INF/manifest.xml (a pattern familiar to Java developers) tells you what’s in there and why. It’s all very clean and straightforward. You could process these documents manually quite easily, but there are already libraries for reading / writing the format for all kinds of languages. As a developer this kind of freedom is extremely welcome.

From a general end-users perspective though, Open Office 2.0 is not a revolutionary change over 1.1 (which I already thought was very capable); however it could just have sneaked over that ‘tipping point’ for more casual observers to actually give it a chance. I like Open Office because it’s free, it does (more than) everything I need, it supports direct PDF export which I use for sending documents electronically (a feature which MS Office has been chronically slow in supporting), I can use the same thing on any platform I choose, and it supports open standards and promotes freedom. Other people just want it to be as good as Word / Excel / Powerpoint - a fair criterion - and there’s no doubt in my mind that it is. I use Office XP at work, and I haven’t noticed anything missing in Open Office - there probably are some things, but chances are almost no-one uses them anyway. In fact, how many people actually use any of the new features in MS Office since Office 97?

My advice is to stop dozing on the upgrade treadmill, and definitely stop buying / pirating Office for home. There is an alternative, and it’s bloody good. Give it a try!