Can OpenOffice 3.0 finally replace MS Office?

Beta of the open source office suite brings a new Start Centre and some added features that provide a serious, free alternative to Microsoft Office

OpenOffice vs. Microsoft Office

For most of what you use an office suite for, you'll find that OpenOffice 3.0 will more than fill your needs. Whether you're creating documents, spreadsheets, or presentations, the suite offers all the basics and much more. There are excellent formatting tools, mail merge, macros, solid charting tools, and the ability to easily create presentations.

If you're thinking of switching to OpenOffice from Microsoft Office, expect practically no learning curve. Many keyboard shortcuts are exactly the same, as are many menus and toolbar choices. You'll be able to import your existing Office documents, and create them in Office formats as well.

OpenOffice also comes with a nice set of wizards for accomplishing a wide variety of tasks. Want to create a formula in Excel, or create a new presentation in Impress? You'll find a wizard for the task.

However, OpenOffice 3.0 does have some shortcomings compared to Microsoft Office. Start with the interface. There's no way around it -- while functional, the OpenOffice interface is dull and stodgy. You may feel as if you're back in the 1990s when you use it. The issue is more than simply aesthetic -- the Office 2007 Ribbon puts far more tools and features at your fingertips, and in a simpler and more elegant way than does OpenOffice 3.0. (Of course, if you're one of those Office users who dislike Microsoft's new interface, you may find OpenOffice's more traditional look to be an advantage.)

There are other shortcomings as well. OpenOffice doesn't have some of Office's more interesting and higher-end features, such as Quick Parts. In addition, you won't find as many templates, backgrounds, or layouts. OpenOffice 3.0 only has the bare minimum (of course, this is a beta release, so this may change).

That shouldn't surprise anyone, considering that OpenOffice is free and without the backing of a multibillion-dollar company. Still, keep that in mind when deciding which you'd rather use.

The bottom line

Who should use OpenOffice? Anyone who needs an office suite but doesn't require the more sophisticated features of Microsoft Office. It's ideally suited for home users, students, and small businesses who don't want to pay the hefty fee for Microsoft Office. If you plan on purchasing an ultra-low-cost portable such as the Asus Eee PC, the suite is ideal -- it's free, doesn't require an excess amount of RAM, runs on a variety of operating systems (including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux), and won't take all of your precious hard disk space. Even on a normal PC, it's a great alternative to Microsoft Office.

Enterprises, though, may have already standardized on Office. And even if they haven't, there simply aren't the support tools and support ecosystem for OpenOffice as there is for Microsoft Office.

All in all, OpenOffice 3.0 shows that you don't have to pay a bundle for a great office suite -- in fact, you don't even have to pay a penny.

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Preston Gralla

Computerworld
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