First Look: Open Office 3.0

The latest version of the most popular free office suite gets its official launch today, but can it take on its commercial rivals – or even work alongside them? Matthew Sparkes takes a first look at the package to find out.

First Look: Open Office 3.0

The first thing you’ll notice on loading Open Office is the new Start Center, essentially a splash screen offering users the choice of booting one of several modules, including Writer (think Word), Calc (read Excel) and Impress (a PowerPoint clone).

A similar feature has been present in Open Office for some time, but it’s been refined into a helpful portal to the office suite, rather than a hindrance to getting into the desired program.

Once you choose from this list of applications, there are few surprises visually. Although it’s been left behind by the latest ribbon-based interface of Microsoft’s Office 2007, users of Office 2003 will feel immediately at home in any of the applications. Menus, shortcut keys and the general look and feel are all faithfully mimicked, as Open Office has done well for several years.

Any slight differences to Office, such as the lack of a word count toolbar in Writer, can easily be solved by using the toolbar customisation feature.

The only noticeable change from previous versions is a set of more colourful and modern icons, which is hardly a revolutionary new feature, but nonetheless spruces up a familiar interface without confusing existing users.

The interface may not break any molds, but that will be a benefit for any IT managers considering a switch from Microsoft Office but worried about staff training costs. Open Office’s developers have been wise to stick to a tried and tested formula here, as it will no doubt improve its chances of increased adoption in the workplace.

Office support

Open Office now offers support for both the upcoming ODF 1.2 and OOXML standards, both of the main XML-based formats that are likely to become common standards for office documents in the near future.

While support for the ODF format, which is backed by the open source community, is built in to the very core of the application, OOXML support is rather less robust. The software occasionally struggled to import OOXML documents created in Microsoft Office; when opening a Word document containing a chart and a WordArt image, for example, only the plain text was shown.

However, as the OOXML format is still undergoing change as part of the ISO ratification process, it’s perhaps unfair to criticise so soon. The help file within Open Office itself admits that WordArt and Charts are a problem when importing files, and may require “some degree of manual reformatting”.

The package’s support for previous binary file formats from Microsoft – the ubiquitous .doc, .xls and .ppt – is far better, and bodes well for the future of OOXML and Open Office, although it admittedly won’t help users now.

Other new features

Solver is one superb new addition to Calc, which provides easy solutions to combinatorial optimisation problems. Aside from sounding incredibly complex, this feature could become essential to small businesses by working out the best possible outcome to an equation, given a set of variables.

One of the biggest new features will only benefit Mac users. Previous versions of Open Office required a third-party application, X11, in order to run. This cluttered the desktop with another open window.

Now the software runs in its own window and adopts the common look and feel of the Mac OS X Aqua interface. This makes the office package far more viable as a business tool where Mac users are concerned.

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