OpenOffice.org 3.1: The next generation

A significant step ahead for this free open-source alternative to Microsoft Office

The latest version of the open-source office suite OpenOffice.org 3.1 has just arrived, and it's a good one. While some of the improvements are visible to the naked eye, I found that the most important changes were hidden under the hood.

What is it? OpenOffice.org 3.1 is a set of office productivity applications: Writer (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentation manager) and Base (database manager). It's missing an Outlook substitute, but otherwise it's a complete replacement for Microsoft Office. The suite is available as a free download for Linux, Mac OS X, Solaris, and Windows; there are versions for most major languages.

What does it do? The first thing you'll notice about the new OpenOffice.org is that it just looks better. Thanks to its use of anti-aliasing, the program menus, letters and images it displays are sharper and clearer. (You can see examples at Sun's OpenOffice.org engineering blog.)

I tested the suite on a Windows XP system and one running MEPIS 8, a Debian-based Linux distribution. What really caught my attention after a few minutes of using the various OpenOffice.org apps was how much faster this version is than version 3.0. This was especially clear on when I ran it on a Windows XP system. It used to take about 12 seconds to launch Writer; now it takes just over 6 seconds. I saw similar performance boosts when running the various other applications. It's almost like running OpenOffice.org on a brand new machine.

Another good feature, if you're considering OpenOffice.org for office use, is that it now has its own OS-independent file-locking system. Now Jack in marketing, who uses a Mac, can't overwrite a change that was just made by Jill in the (Windows-based) comptroller's office.

I tried to mangle a shared document (that existed on a Windows Server 2008 file server) by editing it from my Linux desktop and also from my XP desktop. I couldn't do it. The file-locking mechanism preserved the document from my best attempts to make a complete mess of it.

What's cool about it? OpenOffice.org, like the Firefox Web browser, can use extensions to increase its functionality. For example, Writer's existing grammar checker framework can now be augmented with extensions like LanguageTool. It won't significantly improve your writing, but it will save you from some of the more idiotic grammar errors. I've been waiting for this feature since OpenOffice.org first showed up. (Although I did encounter some Java run-time errors when I tried to run it.)

OpenOffice 3.1
OpenOffice.org 3.1, like the Firefox Web browser, can use extensions to increase its functionality.

In Calc, OpenOffice.org's answer to Excel, performance has been given an incredible boost. Complicated spreadsheets that in the past allowed me to take a 5-minute coffee break while they finished their calculations now run in five seconds. In the past, I kept a copy of Excel around for taking care of heavy-duty spreadsheet jobs. I won't need to do that anymore.

What needs to be fixed? It's not all good news. Much as I dislike sitting through PowerPoint presentations, I know that many people rely on PowerPoint every day to get their points across. Impress, OpenOffice.org's presentation manager, is good, but it's not PowerPoint good. There are some improvements, thanks in large part to anti-aliasing making the graphics sharper, but it simply doesn't offer as many features. If you just do presentations once in a blue moon, Impress is fine. If you make your living with PowerPoint, you won't be impressed with Impress.

Final verdict: I've been using OpenOffice.org for years now. With these performance and appearance improvements, I can see more users moving to this free office suite. In particular, I think anyone who does spreadsheets every day owes it to themselves to compare Calc and Excel. You'll be impressed.

Calc aside, OpenOffice.org 3.1 isn't a major step forward. But if you're getting tired of paying for a new version of Microsoft Office every few years, you should try this latest edition of OpenOffice.org. Except for advanced presentations, there's nothing you can't do in the free OpenOffice.org that you can in the ever-more-pricey Microsoft Office.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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