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After singing the praises of free operating systems, it is now time to pay tribute to free office software suites. Specifically, OpenOffice.org (a/k/a OO), the "substitute," open source "replacement" for Microsoft Office.
"Substitute?" "Replacement?" We believe it to be so, but we know deep down, that it cannot be - if it were, in the sense that proprietary Microsoft code were used in order to clone aspects and functions of MS Office, Microsoft would just sue Sun or anyone else involved in OO (by dint of great effort, however, the OO crew has managed to successfully read/write files saved in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint formats).
And, yet, we ignore the naysayers, who say nay to free open source office suites because, they claim, such suites are just a pale imitation of the "real thing." But we aren't purists; we frankly don't care what the label on the box says. To us, the slight incompatibilities that crop up between OO and MS Office files occasionally are besides the point (http://tinyurl.com/2qna8b). What, then, is the point? The $400 plus or so you save when you don't buy the MS product and, instead, download the OO product for your office suite needs.
If Microsoft were to begin giving away its office product, and if it continues to be the standard suite used in the Windows world, I am sure all of us would be using MS Office. Why take a chance, even a small one, that your word processor document, spreadsheet or slideshow presentation can't be read by those you correspond with? But of course, that isn't the case; Microsoft charges a good chunk of money for its office suite, and if you don't pay (or acquire a legitimate serial number in some nefarious manner), you're going to find yourself severely limited in your ability to work with their product (especially with the latest edition, Office 2007; see http://tinyurl.com/y87v7z).
Even fans of open source, even the ideologically anti-Microsoft crowd, and even the folks watching their pocketbooks, would probably have to admit that it would be more convenient - safer, so to say - to write documents in MS Word, if there is a 95% chance that people you are sharing the document with use that program exclusively. I can't speak for the ideologically motivated, whether prompted by positive or negative feelings - but I can speak as one who doesn't want to shell out the kind of money Microsoft wants, nor steal someone's working serial number. To me, that 5% risk of incompatibility (actually, it's probably far less) is worth the risk. As long as MS Office is dominant in the office, we outsiders have no choice but to play ball - while we keep pumping for converts to our way of doing things.
What remains, then, is to do what we can to make OO as good as it can be - as fast, compatible and user-friendly as possible. Nobody said OO was perfect; it can be slow, as those who use it regularly have noticed.
Documentation can be spotty, if not downright esoteric; it's common with open source software. And then there's that compatibility thing; you really want to do whatever possible to minimize the possibility that those you send your files to will have problems. But where there's a will, there's a way - and the will to save money is such that people like me have searched high and low for solutions to these dilemmas. Fortunately, there are ways around all these issues; OpenOffice.org may come at a cut-rate price, but it can hold its own against the competition, if not beat it in several important ways.
One thing converts to OpenOffice.org have trouble with is the way they learn how to use the program in its most effective form. Because there's no major commercial motivation involved, you don't get a lot of third-party documentation written by non-programmers showing users the essential tips and tricks of using OO (http://www.amazon.com lists 8,842 books about Microsoft Office, and 438 about OpenOffice.org). The OpenOffice.org site itself has all the official manuals, of course (http://documentation.openoffice.org), but if you want to find out how to tweak what goes on under the hood, you'll most likely have to search through user forums and individual Web page guides. Some of the better ones I've come across are at http://tinyurl.com/2ybxpl, http://inpics.net, http://tinyurl.com/32tnbo, http://www.learnopenoffice.org/tutorials.htm and http://tinyurl.com/7kvo7, among others. These guides and tutorials offer useful information for new and veteran users and make transferring your work habits from MS Office to OO a piece of cake. And you'll find plenty of advanced techniques at http://www.oooforum.org, the OpenOffice.org User Forum.
What about speed? Well, one reason given for MS Office's alleged speed advantage is that it is brought to you by the people providing the operating system itself - MS Office, if installed, can hook into segments of Windows as the OS loads, much like Internet Explorer does. OO doesn't have that advantage, of course, but there are a number of adjustments you can make to the way it gets set up that will dramatically increase its loading speed, as described at http://tinyurl.com/2aqy6f. Having 100 undos (the default number when you install OO) is great, but 25 is probably more than enough for most people, and just making that change makes OO load far faster.
What about compatibility? Well, who says you need to fit OO documents into the Microsoft Office box at all? True, you can save files into MS Office format, but OO has its own perfectly good document format. If you're archiving files for yourself (i.e. you only need to print out files, not share them), there's no reason not to use OO's .odt format.
According to this site (http://tinyurl.com/2xj3v5), OO's native format saves faster and compresses better than MS Office's, and does not lose any subtle formatting like saving to MS Office formats may cause to happen. Note, by the way, that we haven't included in this analysis the logical alternative to either MS Office or OpenOffice.org, Google Docs and Spreadsheets (http://docs.google.com). It's just as cheap as OO, of course, but there's nothing like the feeling that you got something for nothing - and while doing some on-line word processing is okay, it's nothing like the feeling you get when you use a full-fledged office suite like OO. It's very presence on your computer just confirms everything you already know about yourself - that you're smart, good looking, and $400 richer!