OpenOffice update charts course to new features

Developer also says stats show open-source suite isn't just kids' stuff

The OpenOffice.org group updated its open-source suite of desktop applications on Monday, saying that its new release enhances the ability of users to create charts and other graphics from spreadsheet data.

And with the free office software facing reinvigorated competition from Office and other commercial rivals, OpenOffice.org also touted new statistics about its users in an attempt to belie the stereotype that the open-source technology only attracts young, undemanding fans.

In addition to simplifying the suite's Chart component and adding more features to it, the OpenOffice.org 2.3 update includes display improvements within Writer, its counterpart to Microsoft's Word software. The update also provides better compatibility between the OpenOffice suite's Calc application and Excel, plus other new features.

Users can download OpenOffice.org 2.3 from the open-source project's Web site. Versions are available for all releases of Windows after Windows 98, as well as Linux, Solaris, Mac OS X and FreeBSD.

The release of the update comes just two days before the start of OpenOffice.org's annual developers conference, which will take place from Wednesday through Friday in Barcelona.

Last week, IBM said it would officially join OpenOffice.org and contribute code it has written for its Lotus Notes collaboration software. IBM's addition could shake up an organization that remains largely dominated by employees of Sun Microsystems, which created the StarOffice suite upon which OpenOffice.org is based.

Version 2.0 of OpenOffice.org was released nearly two years ago. Although the open-source group says its namesake software has been downloaded 96 million times, the suite still holds a small share of the overall productivity software market.

Meanwhile, the new Office 2007 release of Microsoft's market-dominating application suite is selling well. And Apple's new iWork 08 release adds a spreadsheet tool called Numbers along with features designed to improve its presentation and word processing components.

OpenOffice.org 2.3 lacks the ability to import and open files created in the Office Open XML document format that is native to Office 2007, although developers at Sun are working on that capability. The update can open and save files in Microsoft's older Office document formats, according to the open-source group.

As part of its upcoming conference, OpenOffice.org will release statistics showing that more than half of its users are more than 40 years old. That contradicts the stereotype of the open-source suite's typical user, according to Erwin Tenhumberg, community development and marketing manager for OpenOffice.org.

"OpenOffice is not just used by students and kids," said Tenhumberg, who derived the statistics from an online survey that solicited answers from users as they registered their OpenOffice.org software for the first time. About 200,000 people responded to the survey, which was offered in English, French and German, he said.

Still, only 20 percent said that they use the OpenOffice.org software at work -- and that is mostly at small to midsize organizations in IT and markets such as education. Two-thirds of the respondents said they don't use macros, the programmable shortcuts that Microsoft touts as differentiating features in Office for professional users, because they don't need them.

And more than half of the surveyed users said they still use Office as well. However, Tenhumberg said that because of technical reasons, the survey primarily involved Windows users, which he acknowledged may have skewed the results. He noted that the two most popular reasons cited for trying the OpenOffice.org suite were that it was free and that it was "not Microsoft."

Tenhumberg, who is a Sun employee in Germany, will present his findings at the conference later this week. They will also be posted on his blog.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld
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