[Update: OpenOffice.org is still available, but Sun Microsystems methods of managing the source code caused releases to take a long time...Then Sun was acquired by Oracle, and they eventually cut the OpenOffice.org project loose entirely...it now rests in the hands of the Apache Foundation - good hands to be sure. But there is another fork, called LibreOffice which was made while OO was still under Oracle's control that has taken the lead in OSS office suites, at least for the time being...I run LibreOffice now but mainly use Google Docs.]
If you want to write a document, what do you use? Microsoft Word. If you want to create a spreadsheet – what do you use? Microsoft Excel? What do you call those interactive slideshows you project onto a screen? A PowerPoint. Who owns PowerPoint? Microsoft, of course.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with Microsoft. In fact, I might even be a bit of a fan-boy. I write this post from a Windows Vista laptop and across from me sits a Windows Vista desktop. Downstairs is a Windows 2000 desktop. I’ve been running Windows for years – and DOS before that. But I’ve decided not to spend my money on Office productivity software. Why? Because similar software to what Microsoft sells is available for free.
Sun Microsystems, a company best known for designing Java, a language that is cross-platform (runs on multiple Operating Systems – e.g. Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux). They are actually a behemoth of a company that does much more – but for our purposes we are interested in just one product – OpenOffice.org. Sun Microsystems attempted to best Microsoft at its own game with a office suite it called StarOffice. The suite never took off and so they open sourced the code and dedicated some developers to its continued development. Thus was birthed OpenOffice.org.
The OpenOffice suite of products includes almost everything you could need to be productive. They have Writer – which is similar to Word, and it saves in the ODF format which is much smaller than Microsoft’s older DOC format (though with the new OOXML they are getting closer). However, it can also save in a variety of other popular formats including Word (DOC) and Adobe Acrobat (PDF).
OpenOffice has Calc – their mysteriously named spreadsheet application – similar to Excel. Then there is Base, their database application which is based on a full SQL engine and probably is more featureful than Microsoft’s Access database application.
But what about PowerPoint? Well, first off, the term is presentations. The use of the term PowerPoint to describe presentations is similar to the use of the term xeroxing for copying. Xerox is actually the name of a company – PowerPoint is the name of a product – not of the actual technologies. But, yes, OpenOffice.org even has a powerful presentations application – Impress.
When you have to choose whether to buy Microsoft Office or download the free OpenOffice.org, the choice should be simple for consumers – grab a copy of OpenOffice.org and get on with your life. If you really can’t stand that cash in your pocket drop me a line and I’ll give you an address to send the check to (mine).
Note: I did not say this was an easy decisions for businesses. Unfortunately, while OpenOffice can work in business environments and has been utilized by a number of large businesses there are issues of compatability and adaptability that are outside the scope of this article.