Featured Product: OpenOffice.org: An Open Alternative to Off-the-Shelf

Open standards offer software users the opportunity to literally think outside the box—the box that holds commercial software disks, that is. The open-standards philosophy relies on the free dissemination of applications, code sharing, and a community of users who continuously contribute to improving the product.

OpenOffice.org is an open source office suite that features the same productivity tools as StarOffice and Microsoft Office. OpenOffice.org has a spreadsheet application, word processing, presentation manager, and drawing program. The user interface and feature set are remarkably similar to StarOffice and MS Office, although OpenOffice.org is not a duplicate of either. Some features vary among the three. The source code for OpenOffice.org comes from Sun, which owns StarOffice. OpenOffice.org runs stably and natively on Solaris, Linux (including PPC Linux), and Windows. Additional ports, such as FreeBSD, IRIX, and Mac OS X, are in various stages of completion, with the Mac OS X port likely to be available in a "complete" form early in 2003.

Users can print in PDF and other formats and save their work in various file formats. OpenOffice.org also has a working spell check function and online help. There are most of the same features as commercial products. OpenOffice.org works transparently with a variety of file formats, including Microsoft. However, it d'es not support the use of macros from legacy programs.

OpenOffice.org is free to any user who cares to download it from www.openoffice.org. However, at the moment it d'es not come with a manual, and there is no technical support available. For that reason, OpenOffice.org may be best used by those already familiar with similar office productivity suites, or those who enjoy working with open-source products that they can shape to their own purposes.

According to Josh Berkus, volunteer project lead for OpenOffice.org, third-party OpenOffice.org handbooks will be available within the next few months. "There are already ‘quick reference sheets,'" says Berkus, which can be viewed at www.cluesheets.com. Also, developers have written online tutorials (see http://documentation.openoffice.org, www.ooodocs. org, and www.digitaldistribution.com).

Jerry Feldman, a software engineer at Hewlett-Packard Co. and a part-time Linux instructor at Northeastern University, said OpenOffice.org loads faster than StarOffice, which he has also used. Feldman uses OpenOffice.org for his in-class presentations. "The fonts are easier to manage in OpenOffice.org," he says. What's more, OpenOffice.org features have "saved me time and make my presentations easier to compose."

The only aspect Feldman misses about StarOffice 5.2 is its capacity to display two presentations side by side simultaneously. OpenOffice.org uses separate windows. But Feldman would not sacrifice OpenOffice.org's other features in order to get that back.

OpenOffice.org is best thought of as both a product and a project, or perhaps a process. As with other open-standards products, this one is in a constant state of development, offering a high level of functionality even as it is being improved upon by dedicated users and fans. Louis Suarez-Potts, a community manager for OpenOffice.org, says one can best compare open-source software to commercial software by thinking of the differences between a movie and a still picture: Open-source software is dynamic, and what you see is changing all the time.

Commercial packages, with their dependable, stable code, are static. OpenOffice.org, says Suarez-Potts, appeals to three types of users. "There are users who are simply looking for free software that is easy and fast to download," he says. That certainly defines OpenOffice.org: "But another sort of user likes the idea of passing the software along from friend to friend, as part of a community of users in defiance of the larger software industry." The third category, those who are looking for software they can customize, represents a large number of OpenOffice.org's users.

Suarez-Potts, who is also a consultant and part of the team of paid and volunteer marketers for OpenOffice.org, thinks that both aspects have enticed new users to the suite. He points out that the software is truly international, already available in 27 languages with more in development. "It's an ideal product for parts of the world where commercial software is too expensive," he says. What's more, because the file format for OpenOffice.org is XML, interoperability is easy. It is accessible and adaptable by anyone. XML file format also incorporates zip compression, so that files saved in it can be made 25 percent to 60 percent smaller. XML support also allows users to save files to PDAs and other portable devices.

For more information about OpenOffice.org, visit www.openoffice.org.

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