In-Depth 3: Free and Easy

Now 15 years old, the open source productivity suite is still gaining fans and improving compatibility with its chief rival, Microsoft Office. Readers weigh in on version 3 of the suite.

Although Microsoft Office can cost as much as $680, it remains, by far, the gold standard for productivity software.

A far cheaper alternative -- in fact about $680 less expensive -- is gearing up to challenge the Redmond monopoly. 3 (OO.o3) came out late last year, and many longtime fans, along with brand-new users, downloaded the tool the moment it came out.

The interest in this open source suite is clearly high. After I asked for comments in my Redmond Report e-mail newsletter, 18 readers quickly wrote in and shared their experiences.

Software, at least with conventional packages, starts with installation, and here the news is good. "Installation was very easy, just double-click and answer a few questions; you have the option to register or not," says Craig Burgess, a systems and network administrator in Maryland. Burgess uses OO.o3 on Windows Vista. "If you have a previous version, it will uninstall it and save your settings, install the new version and use the saved settings with it or opt for a clean install." 3 Key Features
  • Microsoft Office 2007 file import filters
  • Shared worksheets
  • VBA support; runs most VBA macros
  • Solver, a spreadsheet tool to find the optimum result based on existing values and constraints
  • ODF 1.2 file format support
  • Runs on Mac OS X

Other IT pros share this pleasant install experience: "On a standalone PC, it's easy," says Clarke Rice, an ICT and computing instructor in Northern Ireland. "Download, run the .EXE file and keep hitting 'next.' On my desktop PC and a couple of laptops, there are no worries about product activation telling me I'm using [it] in too many places even if I'm not using them at the same time. Installation is much quicker than [with] Office."

Not all, however, are so enthralled. "Installing has always been an all-or-nothing deal," says Dennis R. Barr, manager, information technology for Larkin Group Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. "Even when updating because of a patch, or upgrading from one point version to the next, it's always been a full install. Delta patches just don't seem to fit into the development model for OO.o. [Version 3] was no different. The option to preserve personal info works well, and installed extensions are generally available after the upgrade, although that's not always the case. I'm looking at the Program Files folder on a Vista notebook at the moment; there are folders for 2.3, 2.4, and 3. Only the latest one has any content, but it's an indicator that more thorough housekeeping would be helpful in keeping the folder tree neat and tidy."

User Interface
Users have mixed feelings about the OO.o3 interface. "If you want bells and whistles, you might feel let down," Rice says. "If you want functional and steady, no problem. Writer and Calc are on a par with their Microsoft [counterparts]. Impress isn't as polished as PowerPoint, though, but is moving in the right direction. Base is the only component likely to give you major usability issues."

Commonality, though, is one plus. "The user interface should feel right at home for Microsoft Office users, at least those using Office 2003 or earlier," Barr says. "It hasn't been completely redesigned like Microsoft did with the Office 2007 interface, and this may actually work to OO.o3's advantage, particularly if people don't want to learn the new Ribbon UI that Office 2007 has."

After 15 years of development, OO.o3 is feature-rich, functional and quite usable, readers say. "I've never found any problems with the usability of OO.o, even going back to the earliest versions," Barr reports. "It's always been a serviceable substitute for Microsoft Office, and its feature set gets better with each release. Usability hasn't suffered as features have been added -- if anything, it's gotten better."

Rice moved to OO.o3 out of frustration: "For professional reasons, I found myself using Word [97] again, and it's one of very few programs I have become utterly angry with. When you find yourself ready to throw the PC out the window, it's time to use a different application. The problem was it routinely reformatted lengthy documents. I changed font size to 10 -- or to Arial -- for one paragraph and the preceding 20 pages followed suit. You might be thinking, 'There's a way to stop that.' I don't care how to stop it. As a user, I never asked for it."

So Rice moved back to OO.o. "The big plus: It did what I wanted without trying to help me. No (insert expletive of your choice) paperclip. No reformatting a dozen paragraphs because I reformat two words. Bliss."

Some use both Office and OO.o3.

"In a side-by-side comparison, the two applications that I think are really noteworthy are Writer and Calc," explains James Anderson, a network administrator in Ohio. "I prefer Writer over Word, purely for the way formatting is accessed in Writer. To me, the way that styles in Writer are applied makes so much more sense and is much more intuitive than in Word. However, with Excel versus Calc, I've never really switched over. Excel just feels better to me."

A Brief History of hasn't been around for 16 years like Microsoft Office, but it did have its beginnings as a suite in 1994 -- so the ages are close. German company StarDivision first wrote productivity software for the Zilog Z80 computer, and later for the Intel-based Control Program for Microcomputers operating system and the Commodore 64 computer.

Sun Microsystems Inc. bought the company in 1999 and turned it over to the open source community.

Versions are now available from Sun, Novell and IBM Corp.

When there are no, or few, complaints about stability, you have a stable product -- and that describes OO.o3. "This is a very stable product that runs fine," Burgess says.

Rice agrees: "It doesn't crash and recovers documents if there's a power loss. I'm happy."

Barr adds: "OO.o has always worked as it was supposed to for me and has been no more prone to strange behavior than any other large computer application I use."

Compatibility with Office
Microsoft Office is the standard productivity suite, which means any competitor must be compatible. "My experience with OO.o3 has been pretty positive in the compatibility area," Barr says. "There have been some highly formatted Word docs that came in strangely altered. Some things in Excel have been interestingly recreated. In Impress, on the other hand, the ability to read PowerPoint files has been very clean. And the ability to export those to a Flash format has allowed me to reduce the size of some large PowerPoint files by as much as 80 percent or more."

Compatibility is good -- but not perfect. "For me, there are no problems," Rice says. "I prepare documents, manage my finances and do the occasional spreadsheet. Any time I've exported to Office, there have been no problems. Very occasionally, there's a .DOC file sent to me that has the formatting a bit screwy or a .PPT file that's a bit off. OO.o3 has the bonus of making sure receivers see exactly what I intended with a built-in PDF export."

There are even ways to make OO.o3 work with Office 2007 formats. "I'm able to read Microsoft Office 2007 files, though you need to save them in a different format. You can go back and forth when using the previous version of Microsoft Office format," Burgess says.

But for heavy Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) users, there's a bit of trouble. "The compatibility issues have most often arisen when files with VBA macros were opened. I don't see that issue going away anytime soon," Barr says.

Reader Greg Hughes agrees: "I've recommended for both home and office use with good results. My only caveat is, 'It's better than Office, but it ain't Office.' If you need total compliance with a bit of VBA code thrown in, get Office," says Hughes, an IT specialist with a large community bank in the Midwest.

One reader, who goes by the handle Alpha Pup, blames Microsoft for any incompatibilities: "Looking forward, I prefer the product that will do what I need and save documents in a format that conforms to an open standard. I'm really tired of the format-lockdown game. My impression is that Microsoft adopts standards only after every means to thwart it is exhausted."

Integration and manageability are key selling points for Microsoft Office in corporate environments, and in manageability OO.o3 is playing catch-up. "In a networked office environment," Barr argues, " doesn't have the breadth of management and deployment tools that are available for Microsoft Office, but a review of the Services wiki on the OO.o Web site shows that there are services and providers available for taking on that kind of task. I suspect this is going to be a growth industry, particularly in non-American markets."

Integration, at least with other open source tools, is more mature. "I have no problems using OO.o as part of an overall open source solution stack for my own use," Barr continues. "My company uses Microsoft products, both Office and Windows, because the market we are in really demands that platform. However, to the extent that I've been able, I install OO.o on new PCs as we get them, and recommend it as a good tool for people asking about [what type of software they should use on their] home computers."

With OO.o3, extensions are created by the community, rather than a single vendor-and the overall picture is pretty good. "I use a few different OO.o extensions, among them CADOO.o and Gdocs, as well as some Sun extensions and others. I think this is one of the great things about OO.o3 -- that it fosters this kind of extra functionality," Barr says.

This user-generated model stands up nicely to Microsoft. "There's good support for add-ons," Rice says. "Microsoft Office devotees may argue that Office has a lot more built-in [templates], which it does. OO.o supports user add-ons, a la Mozilla. It's also designed to work with Thunderbird. I guess it depends whether the user wants Microsoft Office as a one-stop shop or if they're happy to pick and choose from what else is out there."

One of the faults of OO.o3 is that it doesn't really push the envelope, either in features or in the user interface. "I don't think there's a lot of room left for innovation in word processing -- this problem has been more or less solved," Rice says. "The last big revolution-the Microsoft Office 2007 interface -- left me cold. I don't have time to fiddle around trying to figure it out. Any more features would add to bloat and slow the product down."

Many fault OO.o3 for trying to be too close to Microsoft. "A problem with a lot of open source apps is that they seem to be guided by what Microsoft or one of the other large, closed-source software companies is doing," Barr believes. "I don't see this changing overnight, although with the rise of Web 2.0 and similar technologies, new paradigms are coming to maturity that are going to inspire open source developers even as they confound proprietary software vendors."

Burgess sees the same problem: "[There's] nothing innovative with 3. Basically they're just trying to keep up with the previous version of Microsoft Office," he believes.

An ex-Microsoft employee goes even further: "A number of years ago, when I had retired from Microsoft, I took a serious look at the desktop Linux efforts and What bugged me in general about the efforts was that they were so busy trying to emulate Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office that they weren't doing anything innovative. Their value proposition is, 'You don't have to pay Microsoft a licensing fee,' and that's about it," the IT pro, who asked not to be identified, says.

"They just totally blew the opportunity to create completely different and more compelling experiences than what Microsoft had done," he adds. "Where was the new thinking in UI? Where was a new paradigm for information work? The world doesn't need cheaper software; it needs revolutionary software."

What Would You Change or Add?
"OO.o3 doesn't have a built-in option to compress graphics [as Word 2000 and later versions do], so files can get a wee bit bloated," Rice says. "If you like to edit your image in an image-editing program before importing, this isn't a problem. If you put in several large images and then realize you have a file too big to use as an e-mail attachment, then you do have a problem."

The performance of OO.o3 is what one might expect from a large, conventional app. "[OO.o3 is] a wee bit slow on startup; once it's running, it's fine," Rice says.

But performance is steadily improving. "In the past, seemed a little slow, though the performance is now up to par," Burgess says.

Microsoft is clearly the performance target. "Microsoft has been very successful in tweaking their apps to work pretty well on the Windows platform," Barr says. "OO.o is catching up, but it's not really there yet. This could be seen as a complaint, but it's not, really. I don't [personally] need to have my programs open instantaneously; a fast machine cuts the wait time down to just a few seconds." 3

Bottom Line may be 15 years old, but it's still gaining new admirers.

"I was a fan of previous versions of Microsoft Office and preferred [its] simple yet straightforward interface," says Roy Furr, an IT, sales and marketing professional. "In the last few releases, Microsoft has lost this, but 3 picks up where Microsoft has dropped off. With only minimal compatibility hiccups and a feature set that covers 98 percent of what I'd hope to use it for, has become a formidable replacement for Microsoft Office."

To battle OO.o and other rivals, Microsoft is turning Office into a system with tight integration with other Microsoft tools, a strategy that is in some regards working. "If it wasn't for the promise of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server [MOSS], I would seriously question the expenditure on Microsoft Office within my organization," Anderson says. "I've frequently stated with executive staff that unless MOSS becomes an organizational strategy for our company, I see no value in spending money on upgrading Microsoft Office."


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