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New OpenOffice on the threshold

The group behind the open-source rival to Microsoft Office releases a near-final version of the first significant upgrade to the package.

The first major upgrade of OpenOffice moved a step closer with the introduction of a near-final version of the revamped open-source software.

A "release candidate" version of OpenOffice 1.1 is available now through the Web site of the organization behind the productivity package.

In commercial software, the release candidate is the interim step between beta testing and final distribution. OpenOffice developers will make a few final tweaks to 1.1 before declaring a final version next month, said Sam Hiser, co-leader of the marketing project for OpenOffice.org.

OpenOffice is the free, open-source sibling of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, a software package that includes a word processor, spreadsheet application and other software tools. The package competes with Microsoft's dominant Office product, but can open and save files in Office formats.

While it's dwarfed in market share terms by Microsoft Office, OpenOffice is slowly winning a following, thanks in part to its cost advantages and its ability to work with files created by Microsoft applications.

Key additions to OpenOffice 1.1 include the ability to export files in the portable document format (PDF) created by Adobe Systems and in Macromedia's Flash animation format. Both standards are widely used by Web publishers and usually require the use of special authoring software.

"The PDF and Flash features let OpenOffice users generate universally acceptable files that can go on the Web," Hiser said.

Version 1.1 also incorporates more support for XML (extensible markup language), the format increasingly embraced as the standard for exchanging data between disparate computing systems. Besides allowing people to save files in industry-standard XML, OpenOffice 1.1 is also designed to work with third-party "schemas" (custom XML configurations), including those Microsoft plans to use in the upcoming version of Office.

In addition, OpenOffice 1.1 offers support for non-Latin character sets, allowing easier creation of customized versions of OpenOffice for specific languages. The software is currently available in 30 languages, and another 60 localization projects are under way. "OpenOffice is really turning into a global story," Hiser said.

OpenOffice.org recently spun off a sister project, OpenGroupware.org, aimed at creating an open-source alternative to Microsoft's Exchange e-mail server products.