Microsoft Office has been one of the most popular (and profitable) business software suites for many years, but Office is no longer the only game in town when it comes to basic business applications. OpenOffice has emerged as the leading open source software alternative for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Indeed, in the first eight weeks after the release of version 3.0 there were nearly 32 million direct downloads from the openoffice.org site, with 92% of those downloads being for the Windows platform. And for email, contact management, and basic accounting — Office functions not covered by OpenOffice — other open source alternatives are now available.
But are OpenOffice and other open source alternatives to Office really ready for prime time? In this article we'll gauge how OpenOffice 3.0 stacks up to Microsoft Office 2007 by comparing the key attributes and features of both product suites. We'll also take a look at Evolution and GnuCash — open source alternatives to Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Accounting Express (respectively) — and determine whether or not they're worthy of consideration for use in your office.
Sure, Microsoft Office has widespread adoption and an impressive range of features, but OpenOffice offers its own unique advantages — particularly in the areas of cost, localization, cross-platform support, and the availability of third-party extensions and support.
OpenOffice has as clear advantage on price — it's available for free download. Depending upon the specific functionality you require, the cost savings can be significant. Microsoft pricing for a single seat (non-volume) license ranges from $149.95 for Office Home and Student to $679.95 USD for Office Ultimate. Additional charges apply for those needing one or more of the 36 language packs available from Microsoft. In contrast, OpenOffice supports over 80 locales for free, and each comes with its own localized website and documentation.
When researching Office pricing, be sure to read the fine print to determine the actual costs for the functionality you need. For example, Microsoft Exchange Server is required for dynamic calendars and advanced collaboration functionality. Similarly, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is required for certain advanced functionality and for the PowerPoint Slide Library. To share data among multiple computers, the host computer must be running at least Windows XP Professional.
For heterogeneous environments, OpenOffice offers a clear advantage with its cross-platform support. Versions are available for:
In contrast, Office is available in 32 and 64 bit (which has some limitations) versions for Microsoft Windows XP or higher, and a separate version is available for Mac OSX.
Typical of a mature open source project, OpenOffice boasts a community of users who write freely-downloadable extensions that expand the functionality of the base product. Currently, over 100 extensions are available to OpenOffice users who want additional templates, labels, dictionaries, converters, and tools. The OpenOffice extensions site is well worth a browse to get a feel for the features that are available. An RSS feed is available for those who wish to be informed when new extensions are added.
The support section of the OpenOffice website provides free documentation, guides, and tutorials along with the expected forums and mailing lists. Commercial support is available through Sun and from an online directory of consultants. Several books are also available for sale.
OpenOffice clearly offers several impressive advantages, but the real question is whether or not it delivers all the features you're currently using in Microsoft Office. In this section we'll compare each Office 2007 product to its OpenOffice or other open source equivalent. We'll start with Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Access and the OpenOffice 3.0 alternatives to each, then move onto a comparison of Microsoft Outlook and Evolution. We'll finish with look at how GnuCash compares to Microsoft Accounting Express.
OpenOffice Writer provides nearly the same functionality as Microsoft Word, so users who migrate to Writer should be able to perform their usual tasks with minimal disruption. The most notable difference to end-users will be the layout of the toolbars, which may take some getting used to. While not nearly as slick-looking, the tools are all there — but often in a different location than they are in Word.
[caption id="attachment_2019" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="OpenOffice Writer Toolbar Layout"][/caption]Diagrams can be created directly within Writer using the Drawing toolbar or in the standalone OpenOffice Draw application.Writer does provide some nice features not available in Word. Most notable is its ability to export documents to PDF format, which can save the cost of purchasing Adobe Acrobat or using online converters for this purpose. An OpenOffice extension (currently in beta) is available to modify and annotate PDF files.Writer also provides support for reading and saving documents in multiple formats, including odt, sxw, doc, rtf, sdw, txt, html, pdb, xml, psw, and uot. Note that the core product currently does not support changes to the new docx format introduced in Office 2007, but OpenOffice users can download a converter-integrator or convert docx documents online. However, this is a minor disadvantage considering the docx format is not backwards compatible with older versions of Microsoft Office, which require a Microsoft Compatibility Pack to read and write the docx format.
Impress is OpenOffice's PowerPoint equivalent for creating presentations. This utility provides a presentation creation wizard, animations, effects, slide show settings, and the ability to include charts, tables, and images. It can read existing PowerPoint presentations and export presentations to PDF format. Users accustomed to PowerPoint will wonder at the lack of built-in templates, although additional templates are available for free download.
[caption id="attachment_2023" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Create New Presentation Wizard"][/caption]
Excel users should find OpenOffice Calc to be a drop-in replacement. Calc can read and write to Excel, Pocket Excel, and dBase formats as well as save to csv, html, and xml formats. Older versions of Calc sometimes had glitches in formatting when switching between Excel and the native Calc format, but these issues seem to have been ironed out in version 3.0.
While Access is only available in the Professional and Ultimate editions of Microsoft Office, the equivalent database product Base comes standard with OpenOffice 3.0. Base includes a wizard to help users create a new database and tables or connect to an existing database.
[caption id="attachment_2024" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="New Database Wizard in Base"][/caption]Native drivers support Access, MySQL, Adabas D, and PostgreSQL databases. JDBC and ODBC connectors allow for connections to virtually any database, though this can be easier said then done for the non-power user. Fortunately, there is plenty of documentation available, making Base a good open source alternative for businesses that need to integrate database functionality.
While Outlook is included with every version of Office except for the Home and Student editions, OpenOffice does not include an email/contact manager application. For those interested in an open source alternative to Outlook, Evolution is an excellent candidate. Evolution is often touted as the "Outlook killer" for Linux, and now there is even a version of Evolution for Windows. Evolution does not require OpenOffice but may integrate with it.
Evolution supports Bayesian-based junk filtering, intelligent searches, integration with instant messaging, shared calendars and contacts, and integration with Microsoft Exchange and Novell Groupwise. Several dozen EPlugins, as well as the documentation for creating EPlugins, are available to further extend the base feature set. Evolution can import mail, contacts, and calendars from several different types of sources and provides a mechanism to easily backup and restore settings, mail, contacts, tasks, memos, and calendars. Existing Outlook users will find the interface similar, though not quite as slick.[caption id="attachment_2026" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Evolution Read Mail Interface"][/caption]It should be noted that some Linux distributions, such as Novell SUSE, integrate Evolution with OpenOffice, allowing users to seamlessly send documents as e-mail and perform mail merges using their address book.
Accounting Express is available only in the US with the Small Business, Professional, and Ultimate editions of Microsoft Office. For those who are unable to obtain Accounting Express or simply want an alternative, GnuCash is a reasonable open source equivalent for tracking financial transactions, creating reports and graphs, handling invoices and bill payments, and reconciling statements. It also imports Intuit Quicken files and automatically eliminates duplicate transactions. Like Evolution, GnuCash does not require OpenOffice but may integrate with it.
GnuCash is available for Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris and Mac OSX and has been localized into 21 languages. While the online documentation leaves much to be desired, the built-in GnuCash Tutorial and Concepts Guide provides an excellent introduction to both the product and general bookkeeping concepts. Wizards (druids) are available to assist with common tasks. And if you're interested in using GnuCash in conjunction with OpenOffice, an OpenOffice extension for Calc allows you to read and import GnuCash output data.[caption id="attachment_2027" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="GnuCash Account Setup Wizard"][/caption]
For individuals and businesses requiring basic functionality from an office suite, OpenOffice is a clear winner. Further, it may be the only reasonable choice for organizations requiring cross-platform support or localization in a language not available from the Microsoft Office Suite. Organizations that need advanced functionality or rely heavily on the shared functions that require back-end Microsoft servers will have to conduct their own trials to ensure that the needed features are supported in OpenOffice. We recommend that potential users download OpenOffice for their platform and use it to perform their daily office tasks for a month or so. This trial period will indicate the extent of any learning curve for new users as well as highlight any glitches in formatting or collaboration with other users.
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