OpenOffice.org Grows Up

Open SourceSoftware

Nine years after Sun Microsystems bought StarOffice, the resulting OpenOffice.org project is ready to roll out its 3.0 release. Enhanced format compatibility and features put it on par with Microsoft Office.

When Sun Microsystems bought the little-known StarOffice productivity suite in 1999, and soon thereafter released the product’s code base as open-source software, it was unclear how far the arguably quixotic initiative might reach – and what damage it could possibly wreak on Microsoft’s ironclad grip on the office productivity market.

Now, nine years later, Sun is on the verge of a major 3.0 release of the project that grew up around that code base, OpenOffice.org. While OpenOffice.org hasn’t achieved the same measure of mainstream adoption as its ideological cousin, the Firefox Web browser, the freely available office suite has helped advance the state of file format standardisation, to the extent that Microsoft first developed its own open file format and is now prepared to include support for the ISO-standard OpenDocument format in Office 2007.

I tested OpenOffice.org 3.0 in a near-final RC3 version, and was pleased with the progress that the project has made toward improving format compatibility and feature parity with Microsoft Office. I also tested a beta release of StarOffice 9, which is the commercial version of OpenOffice.org for which Sun offers support and intellectual property indemnification.

As with previous versions of the suites, the extent to which OpenOf­fice.org or StarOffice can serve effec­tively as a replacement to Microsoft Office will depend on the features and documents you use in your orga­nisation. Since OpenOffice.org is free to download and take for a spin, it’s certainly worth giving the suite a run in your environment to judge for yourself.

Platforms and Formats

As in previous versions, OpenOf­fice.org 3.0 runs on Windows, Linux, Solaris x86 and Solaris Sparc. Both the Windows and Linux flavors of OpenOffice.org are available in both 32- and 64-bit x86 editions.

New in OpenOffice.org version 3 is native support for Apple’s OS X. Previous OpenOffice.org itera­tions required the X11 server to run, which made OpenOffice.org a bit of a misfit on the OS X desktop.

OpenOffice.org supports the new­est version of the OpenDocument file format, ODF 1.2. The latest ver­sion of ODF includes accessibility and metadata enhancements, as well as a means of specifying spreadsheet formulas that’s more detailed than what was laid out in ODF 1.0.

The lack of formula specificity in ODF 1.0 meant that certain aspects of storing spreadsheet formulas were up to the application developer to define, which could lead to incompatibility between documents created with dif­ferent ODF implementations.

The formula issue hasn’t been a major problem so far, since OpenOf­fice.org/StarOffice has been the pri­mary ODF implementation, but the formula improvements in ODF 1.2 lay the groundwork for broader adoption of the document standard.

Also new in OpenOffice.org 3 are import filters for Microsoft Office 2007-formatted documents. The XML-based .docx, .xlsx and .pptx formats in which Microsoft’s suite now save documents by default.

I tried out OpenOffice.org 3’s Office 2007 format support with a few documents and found the fidel­ity fairly good overall, but marred by enough small errors to disrupt roundtrip, cross-application docu­ment collaboration. OpenOffice.org 3 fares much better at this point with Microsoft’s older, binary Office formats.

When maintaining file format fidelity is paramount, I suggest that users opt for Adobe’s PDF format, which OpenOffice.org has supported well as an export format. New in OpenOffice.org 3 is limited support for importing and editing PDF docu­ments, through a freely download­able extension.