OpenOffice 2 is an undeniable bargain. This robust, free productivity suite offers full-featured word-processing, spreadsheet, database, and presentation apps--and it won't cost you or your business a dime. Too often, freeware carries a you-get-what-you-pay-for caveat, but OpenOffice is the real deal and a solid alternative to Microsoft Office 2003, particularly for small-office or home users who don't mind browsing online forums for product support. OpenOffice reads and writes Microsoft Office files--albeit imperfectly--and it supports multiple operating systems, including GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, Sun Solaris, and Windows. Still, while Sun and its allies are far from creating a multiplatform suite that ends the market domination of Microsoft Office, they've made OpenOffice an inexpensive alternative that's worth a look.
OpenOffice 2 is the open-source version of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 8 desktop suite, which costs between $70 and $100. In 2000, Sun made the StarOffice source code publicly available and invited the open-source community to join Sun's developers in shaping future upgrades. StarOffice 8 has more extras, including additional presentation backgrounds and clip art, as well as better administration and Microsoft Office-migration tools.
At first glance, OpenOffice 2 and StarOffice 8 are identical. The core applications in each suite (Base, Calc, Draw, Impress, and Writer) have matching interfaces, but you'll find differences as you dig deeper. Take the Impress presentations program, for instance: StarOffice provides more than 70 visual backgrounds in its Presentation Wizard, while OpenOffice has only three. StarOffice also comes with more than 1,800 clip-art graphics, while OpenOffice provides less than half that number (though you can download more at the Open Clip Art Library). And only StarOffice provides a variety of tools for administration and Microsoft Office migration.
Like StarOffice, OpenOffice lets you save documents as PDF files--a handy feature for sending read-only files via e-mail, and one not found in Microsoft Office 2003. The Calc spreadsheet in version 2 can handle spreadsheets as large as 65,536 rows (same as Excel), which is great for importing huge Excel files.
OpenOffice 2 supports the OpenDocument Format (ODF), an open-source file format with the ambitious goal of replacing Microsoft Office's formats as the workplace standard. StarOffice 8 supports ODF too; Microsoft Office 2003 does not. Does it matter? Not yet. While the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has mandated support for ODF, most business and home users neither require the benefits nor want the headache of dealing with another file format.
So what's it going to be, OpenOffice or StarOffice? Businesses that want professional-caliber support and superior administration tools should opt for StarOffice. But for small-business and home users who don't mind combing bulletin boards for support tips, OpenOffice is a solid, money-saving alternative.
Because it's open source, OpenOffice relies entirely upon peer support, so you're out of luck if you were hoping for a company rep to walk you through a puzzling question via a toll-free call or an online forum. Luckily, OpenOffice has an enthusiastic developer community. The OpenOffice Web site includes community-written tutorials and manuals, including installation and usage guides for individual applications. These tutorials are well written but lack screenshots to illustrate the tasks being explained. Community support, frankly, is hit or miss. We browsed the mailing list archive and saw posts from users seeking help. Most had one or two replies from fellow users, but it was often unclear if they solved the original poster's problem. Such is the nature of free, community-supported software.