OpenOffice.org has released a public beta of its version 2 product that boasts new XML file formats, new user interface elements and better compatibility with rival office suites. The question is, are these real improvements or just window dressing? This public beta version of OpenOffice 2 is actually labelled as version 1.9.79, and there is still a way to go before it will be stable enough to be used in anger. There are intermittent screen-painting problems and some of its features do not quite work, but then uncovering such problems is the whole point of beta testing so I will make allowances for them in this quick preview.
To start with the conclusion, my overall impression is that OpenOffice is growing up slowly. Its user interface now looks cleaner and more professional. Some of the more child-like icons on its toolbar buttons and menus have been redesigned, many dialogs have been given a makeover and Windows XP Themes are now applied throughout. Floating panes such as the Styles & Formatting pane in Writer now dock on the left or right of the window (but, curiously, still not at the top or bottom). Other panes, such as the Data Sources pane, will not dock anywhere except at the top of the window and, while you can drag the outline of the Data Sources pane, it will not dock either anywhere else or float.
OpenOffice’s brand-new file formats are based on the OpenDocument format developed by OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards). The ODT (text), ODS (spreadsheet), ODB (database), ODG (drawing), ODP (presentation) and related file types are actually ZIP files that each contain five separate XML files holding content, meta information, settings, styles and manifest respectively. Macro code and embedded pictures or other files that have been inserted into a document are also contained in this ZIP file. This system is OpenOffice’s equivalent of the structured storage system developed by Microsoft for its Office documents, but built instead on open standards. OASIS was founded in 1993 to promote SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), and changed its name in 1998. Sun and SAP are the senior sponsors of OASIS, although there are many other sponsors and contributors to the standards. The OpenDocument format was developed by Sun and is currently used by StarOffice, OpenOffice and KOffice. Other vendors can use the specification without havingto pay royalties, but none has yet announced the intention to do so.
OpenOffice 2 can still open and save version 1 files, and there is a Document Converter Wizard that will batch convert any version 1 or Microsoft Office documents to the new file formats. If you constantly need to exchange documents with users of version 1 or Office, you can set those file formats as the default formats in Tools | Options… OpenOffice 2 claims to be compatible with Office 97, 2000 and XP, but there is still no word about the new features Microsoft introduced with Office 2003, or on which features aren’t supported or not supported fully. You sometimes get a warning that some formatting will be lost when saving to another format, but this never states what formatting is not supported, which is particularly unhelpful. OpenOffice also claims to be able to save and open documents in Office 2003’s XML format, but my limited testing of this feature shows it to be severely broken. Paragraphs aren’t assigned any alignment (left, right, centered or justified), and the characters on the last line of each paragraph end up stretched out all the way to the right margin.