Sun Microsystems Inc. is in
the anti-Microsoft business
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Microsoft Corp. should feel supremely complimented by the OpenOffice.org suite of software. And, perhaps, just a tad worried.
OpenOffice’s sleek word processor, spreadsheet and presentation programs capture Microsoft Office’s look and some of the most popular features without the $479 price tag and anti-piracy measures.
OpenOffice is free. The 50-megabyte download costs you nothing. Unlike most other “free” programs, it doesn’t require an advanced degree to fathom.
More importantly — since Microsoft has more than 90 percent of the productivity software market — OpenOffice reads documents that were originally created with Microsoft’s programs and can save in those formats as well.
So what’s the catch?
There are some rough edges and a few omissions, notably a calendar program, e-mail application and database. They’ll be missed mainly by power users and businesses.
There’s also no tech support by phone or printed manuals, unless you print them up yourself. That’s not to say no help is available. Each program has built-in assistance and much more can be found by surfing the OpenOffice.org Web site.
Plus, anyone who wants a more powerful suite without paying Microsoft’s prices could still shell out $76 and buy StarOffice, on which OpenOffice is based.
Sun Microsystems Inc., which sells StarOffice, has released most of the code to a community of programmers who work on developing OpenOffice in their spare time. Besides fee-based tech support, StarOffice also includes a grammar checker, database, additional filters and some fonts that Sun licensed from other vendors.
Why is Sun doing this? Besides selling servers and workstations, Sun is also in the anti-Microsoft business. Alternative software is a key component, as is litigation.
Until now, Microsoft had nothing to fear from StarOffice, which Sun formerly gave away. The previous version was difficult and disappointing.
But that’s not the case with OpenOffice, which is surprising given the reputation most open source software has for being buggy and targeted only for gearheads. Such is the case with most programs written for Linux.
Besides the look of Microsoft Office, OpenOffice incorporates many of the same shortcuts. Want to create a new file? Hit “Control-N.” Want to run the spell checker? Press the “F7” key.
It’s consistent throughout the entire suite.
The program is also available for operating systems other than Windows, including Linux and Unix. The Mac OS X version is still under development. A recently released “developer” version has just implemented printing functions.
OpenOffice does have some problems, however.
Some complex Word documents, especially those with embedded graphics, are misformatted in OpenOffice’s Writer. Occasionally, fonts are incorrect.
OpenOffice’s spreadsheet program, Calc, is confused by commas placed within cells when importing text files. And macros developed in Microsoft Office don’t work at all.
In one case, I opened up a news release that a company spokesman had originally saved in Microsoft Office. It appeared mangled in OpenOffice but revealed details that were hidden in Word, such as talking points and a long list where various managers made comments and signed off.
Still, OpenOffice handles with aplomb most everyday jobs, such composing a letter, school report or household budget. More complex tasks might take some extra time but are manageable.
The headaches are relatively small compared with shelling out hundreds of dollars for each copy of Microsoft Office and then “activating” the program so Microsoft knows you have not installed it on more than one computer.
I’d expect more cost-aware businesses to look closely at OpenOffice now that Microsoft is bumping up the price of its volume licensing scheme.
And for households annoyed by the unavailability of family discounts for a shared copy of Microsoft Office, OpenOffice is a fine option.