Open Source

Taking a closer look at OpenOffice.org 2.0

If you want to break free of Microsoft software, a good place to start is your office suite. Here's what you'll find in OpenOffice.org 2.0.

If you're like most IT folks, you've been using the main Microsoft Office products (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access) for as long as you can remember. After all Microsoft Office has come pre-installed on new PCs for years and many companies have standardized on it. Having been stuck in the Microsoft Office world for so long, chances are that you haven't had the need or the interest in experimenting with another office suite, let alone an open source office suite. However, now there's really a good reason to express an interest an open source office suite—OpenOffice.org 2.0.

OpenOffice.org 2.0, which was officially released to the public in October 2005, is a full service office suite and includes a word processor called Writer, a spreadsheet called Calc, a presentation creator called Impress, and a database called Base. Each application in OpenOffice.org 2.0 rivals its Microsoft Office counterpart in every way making the entire package a truly significant competitor. Raising the bar is the fact that OpenOffice.org 2.0 uses the standardized OpenDocument format, which is XML-based file format designed to remove the barriers imposed on documents by proprietary, vendor-specific, file formats. Oh, yea, and it's free!

In this article, I'll take a look at some of the compelling new features in OpenOffice.org 2.0 as well as provide a brief overview of each of the applications. In upcoming articles on OpenOffice.org 2.0, I'll focus in on each of the applications and take a closer look at performing common tasks.

Where did OpenOffice.org 2.0 come from?

Let's start with a history lesson. Even though you've been a Microsoft Office user, chances are good that you've heard the name OpenOffice.org before. However, you probably assumed that the office suite was primarily used to promote the use of Linux as a viable desktop operating system worthy of competing with Windows. To some extent that's probably true.

While it would be much easier to simply call the product OpenOffice, that name is trademarked by another company. As such, the official name of the product is OpenOffice.org, which naturally leads to the unique abbreviation of OOo.

However, OpenOffice.org was actually born out of Sun Microsystems' 1999 acquisition of a German company called Star Division that had created a notable office suite called StarOffice. Sun purchased StarOffice as a means to compete with Microsoft for a share of the office suite market.

In 2000, Sun launched StarOffice into the open-source arena as OpenOffice.org in order to increase its popularity and to promote innovative design from the open source community. In addition to Sun programmers and a cadre of open source developers, Red Hat, Novell, Intel, and a company called Propylon, which focuses on automation solutions for legislative and regulatory documentation, all work together on the creation of OpenOffice.org

While OpenOffice.org is free, Sun, which is the primary sponsor of the project, still offers a commercial version of StarOffice that gets its code-base from OpenOffice.org. From time to time, Sun takes the OpenOffice.org code base, integrates proprietary features, and releases the combined product as a new version of StarOffice. In fact, a month before OpenOffice.org 2.0 was released, Sun released StarOffice 8, which includes all of the new features found in OpenOffice.org 2.0 as well as a host of additional features.

The OpenDocument factor

While there are a host of cool features in OpenOffice.org 2.0 that are designed to make the office suite as comprehensive as possible as well as improve usability, the most intriguing enhancement has to be the support for the OpenDocument file format. As I mentioned, OpenDocument is an XML file format that can be used by any office application to create documents that are free from being locked in to proprietary, vendor-specific, file formats, thus allowing the creation of text, spreadsheet, chart, and graphical documents that can be viewed, edited, and printed regardless of what office product is used to create the document.

The reason for calling this the most intriguing enhancement is that the OpenDocument format was approved as an OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) standard. OASIS is a nonprofit international consortium that drives the development and adoption of many e-business standards including XML-related standards and specifications. In addition, OpenDocument has been submitted to ISO (International Standards Organization) for ratification as a public standard.

As such, OpenDocument stands to make a big splash in the industry and OpenOffice.org 2.0 is the first open source office suite to provide full fledged support for the OpenDocument standard. For more details on the OpenDocument standard, check out the OASIS OpenDocument datasheet.

The applications

As you can imagine, OpenOffice.org 2.0 provides a collection of applications that work in concert to provide all the features you'd expect from a standard office suite. And to help make it easy for anyone who has used Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org 2.0's designers have spent a great deal of time making the user interface of each application look and feel like their counterparts. As such, if you're currently using Microsoft Office, you'll feel right at home if you decide to experiment with or transition to OpenOffice.org 2.0.

Writer

Writer is of course the word processor and it offers just about every necessary feature that Word provides. Some things are missing, (there isn't a grammar checker) some things have different names, (instead of VBScript for macros you have OpenOffice.org Basic or JavaScript) and of course some things are in different places. (Be sure to keep in mind that the OpenOffice.org 2.0's Help system is very comprehensive and even provides a huge table for translating Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org terms.) However, you'll find things in Writer that aren't in Word. For instance, Writer has the ability to directly export documents to Portable Document Format (PDF) files. Writer can also double as a very functional WYSIWYG HTML editor and even comes with a host of graphical elements for creating very nice looking Web pages.

Calc

Calc is OpenOffice.org 2.0's spreadsheet application and provides everything that Excel does for compiling, organizing, and graphically displaying your data. This version of Calc provides support for up to 65,536 rows of data and its DataPilot feature makes it easy to import external data and manipulate it in whatever way you want. Once you've got your data looking just right, you can save your spreadsheet as a PDF file for easy distribution.

Impress

Impress is a presentation program and just like PowerPoint, will allow you to create some pretty, well, impressive presentations. While it lacks the number of presentation templates found in PowerPoint, it more than holds its own when it comes to special effects, animation, and file format capabilities. Not only can you export presentations to PDF files for a sharing a static version of your presentation, but you can also export a presentation as Macromedia Flash (SWF) files allowing them to be played on any computer with the Flash player installed.

Base

Base, a database program like Microsoft Access, is a new addition to the OpenOffice.org 2.0 suite. In addition to allowing you to easily create databases, forms and reports with intuitive wizards, Base can work as a front-end to a variety of existing database systems, including Access databases (JET), ODBC data sources and MySQL.

Other apps

In addition to the big four applications, the OpenOffice.org 2.0 suite bundles in a couple of other handy little applications. First off there's Draw, a great vector graphics editor with a feature set comparable CorelDRAW and is perfect for creating flowcharts. Then there's Math, which like the Microsoft Equation Editor is a tool for creating and editing mathematical formulas.

Stay tuned

In this article, I've introduced you to OpenOffice.org 2.0 and provided a brief overview of the suite's applications. In future articles, I plan to investigate OpenOffice.org 2.0 in more detail. Stay tuned!

About Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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