In a way, it is brave of OpenOffice to switch its default file format to the new XML standard. Microsoft, with its much bigger user base, dare not do that even though its XML file formats now support identical features to the original binary DOC, XLS and PPT formats. The company has to ensure that Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the rest all save their files in a format that earlier versions can read, which means that out of the box the products must all save to those old formats. Any companies that use the XML formats are likely to use them for server-created documents, which will be generated by automated XML processes without ever having been touched by Word or Excel. I suspect that few companies will change the default save format in Word or Excel from DOC/XLS to XML. If they did, they would have to train all their users to change the format of any documents that needed to be sent outside the company.
The presentations module has received a welcome makeover and now sports a new ‘multipane’ view where you can see thumbnails of the slides down the left side and taskbars on the right. In the middle, you can choose to edit one slide, to see the notes or a full-featured slide sorter in which you can rearrange your slide show or apply transitions and so on. This is much like PowerPoint, and users of that package should feel right at home.
There are new shapes, outline arrows, boxes and more that are compatible with Microsoft AutoShapes. These form the basis of many presentation slides, but, like AutoShapes, they can also be used within word-processing documents. You can fill them with a colour, pattern, gradient or bitmap, change the line weight, style and colour, and put text inside them. The numbers of transitions and animation effects supported has also been increased, which definitely helps with PowerPoint compatibility. OpenOffice often used to choose unexpected transitions when converting from PowerPoint, because the one used in the PowerPoint presentation wasn’t supported.
Previous versions of OpenOffice didn’t have a native database module, although StarOffice used Adabas. OpenOffice 2 uses the HSQLDB database, which stores its data either in memory or on disk using XML to store the database schemas. HSQLDB is open source (BSD Licence) and written in Java. To use any of the database features of OpenOffice – plus many other features – you have to install Sun’s Java Runtime Environment, and the equivalent from Microsoft, the Virtual Machine, is not supported. The Writer and Spreadsheet modules both connect to the database to get data for mail-merge, lists and so on, but the Database module itself uses Writer to display and edit data. Whenever you use the Database Form Wizard to create a form, it creates an OpenOffice Writer document. The form layout options are reasonable, if not pretty, but the default colour schemes are vile.
Of course, it does not help that the current beta code crashes when creating forms, or that the crash-reporting module crashes when it tries to report the problem. But that’s one of the many joys of working with beta software. Unfortunately, OpenOffice is a single, monolithic application, and that means that if one module crashes, it takes with it every document you had open, of whatever type. I started out by typing this column using OpenOffice, but had to give up because I was pushing new features too hard and crashing every two minutes.
If you do not use the wizard to lay out your forms, you are not given much in the way of help or advice – you just get a blank Writer document and a More Controls toolbox. If you show the other database and controls toolbars, you will start to get more of an idea of what is available, but you really need to read all the Help text twice before you start designing forms. The forms in OpenOffice Database are based on the W3C’s XForms specification.
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