If you're thrifty and you use an office suite, it's hard not to like OpenOffice.org, the open-source set of office productivity tools. Version 1.0, which first appeared in 2002, does most things Microsoft Office can do (including smoothly trade files with users of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint). Plus it's free. So what's to improve in version 2.0?
OpenOffice.org 2.0, still in beta during my tests, adds a database creation application similar to Microsoft Access. But beyond that, many of the changes are small improvements that are nice to have, but probably won't radically change how you work. And in that way, OpenOffice.org is similar to Microsoft Office, which hasn't made a change that's really significant to most users in years.
In addition to Base, the database app, OpenOffice.org 2.0 includes a word processor, a spreadsheet application, a presentation program, an app for creating mathematical formulas, and a nifty drawing program much more powerful and fun than Microsoft's Paint. The beta version is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac machines. I tested the Windows version; for PC World's take on the Linux version, check out Matthew Newton's Free Agent column.
Too Much Like Access?
OpenOffice.org's developers seem to have tried to make Base look and act as much like Access as possible. That's been the group's MO from the beginning, and it makes sense--the easiest way to convert millions of Office users to the open-source alternative is to make the transition as simple as possible.
The problem with making an app that's just like Access, though, is that Access completely mystifies many who attempt to use it. And many of those users who do master it don't like it much. It might have been a better plan to create a database app more like FileMaker Pro; that is, one that's not at all like Access but much easier to use.
Tweaks and Additions
Now for the tweaks: Writer now has an easier-to-find word count tool that will tell you simultaneously the number of words in the whole document and the number in a specific selection of the document. (Word, by contrast, won't give you both totals at once.)
Calc, the spreadsheet application, now supports just as many rows of data as Excel, which eliminates one problem major number-crunchers had with the previous version. And if, heaven forbid, you're a fan of transitions and sounds in between the slides of your presentation, Impress now has buckets of them.
While version 2.0 certainly includes features worth having, it might be prudent to stick with version 1.0 until beta testing is over. If you do try the beta, be warned--the version I tested really is a beta. I experienced a number of crashes, especially in Base, and the file recovery system had some glitches.
But once the OpenOffice.org developers release a final edition of version 2.0 (there's no firm schedule), it should prompt lots of people to ask themselves why they pay $300 or more for Microsoft Office with such a good, free alternative available.
OpenOffice.org Version 2.0
Everything you need in an office suite--for free.
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