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OpenOffice celebrates turning 2.0

Programmers release a major overhaul to the open-source software suite that has recently become a more serious rival to Microsoft Office.

Programmers released version 2 of OpenOffice.org on Thursday, a major overhaul to an open-source software suite that has recently become a more serious rival to Microsoft Office.

OpenOffice.org includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation creator and--with version 2.0--a database. Project organizers had hoped to release the upgrade last week, on the fifth anniversary of the creation of the open-source project, but a last-minute bug derailed the plan.

Advocates have ambitious hopes for the software. "OpenOffice.org is on a path toward being the most popular office suite the world has ever seen," Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz said in a statement. Sun is the primary sponsor of the project, but other programming help comes from Red Hat, Novell, Intel, Propylon and independent developers.

OpenOffice's roots lie in Sun's $73.5 million acquisition in 1999 of Star Division, a German company that built an office suite called StarOffice. Sun kept the StarOffice product line, but in 2000 also released it as the open-source OpenOffice.org project.

Nearly 50 million copies of OpenOffice have been downloaded, but only recently has the software become a more serious threat to long-dominant Microsoft Office. Version 2.0 brings some significant new features, and Google has pledged to help distribute OpenOffice through a high-profile pact with Sun. But perhaps more significant, OpenOffice.org uses the standardized OpenDocument format that stands in stark contrast to Microsoft's proprietary formats.

Microsoft is adding support for one open file type, Adobe's Portable Document Format, in the upcoming Office 12. But Microsoft Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky said earlier this month that it would be difficult to add OpenDocument support to Office and that "we've had no demand from our customers for this feature."

Massachusetts has required support of OpenDocument, and , IBM's vice president of standards and open source, has urged computer users to pressure software companies, governments and corporations to support OpenDocument.

OpenOffice runs on Windows, Linux, FreeBSD and Sun's Solaris. Programmers are working on a version that will use Mac OS X's native user interface as well.

Among the other features in OpenOffice 2.0:

• The user interface has been changed. People can use the software with a multipane view that divides the user interface into tool and work areas, while toolbars can be customized.

• Password-protected Microsoft Office files can be opened, as long as the password is known.

• A mail merge wizard is designed to make it easier to create different versions of the same letter intended for a large number of recipients.

• There are more-sophisticated options for export of files into Portable Document Format.

• The Calc spreadsheet software supports twice as many rows--65,536, the same number as Microsoft Excel.

• The Java-based HSQLDB database is included.

• Documents can include digital signatures.

• WordPerfect files can be imported.

• There's support for different operating systems' native installation formats--MSI files for Windows and RPM files for Linux, for example.