RealTime IT News

OpenOffice Hits 3.0: Can It Challenge Microsoft?

The office suite, which provides word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications, has long been among the most heavily used applications on users' desktops. For much of the Windows-centric world, that suite is Microsoft Office, but for open source users, more often than not, the choice is OpenOffice.org (OOo).

Today, OOo is out with version 3.0, which offers better interoperability with Microsoft Office as well as a new extensibility framework for adding features to the open source office suite.

The OOo 3.0 release comes as Microsoft continues to grapple with standardization issues around Office Open XML (OOXML) and competition from online offerings as well, like those from Google. The big question, though, is whether the new updates will help OOo become more widely viewed as a worthy replacement for Microsoft Office.

"For 95 percent of the users out there, we believe OpenOffice.org can fully replace Microsoft Office," Grant Ho, senior product marketing manager of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, told InternetNews.com. Novell is a major contributor to OOo and includes the office suite as part of its SUSE Linux distributions.

"While OpenOffice.org today may not be a 100 percent, feature-for-feature match with Microsoft Office, its strong interoperability with Office file formats, combined with an attractive price point, lower support costs and minimal retraining, makes it an extremely compelling alternative," he said.

Ho said Novell's contributions to OOo 3.0 include file format interoperability with Microsoft Office, improved VBA macro support and several enhancements to Calc.

For its part, Microsoft isn't too worried about OOo 3.0.

"We build 21st century features like deep integration, desktop/Web/mobile availability, technical support, collaboration and unified communications into Microsoft Office because our customers ask for and expect them," Michael Croan, senior marketing manager at Microsoft, said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com. "This functionality is not always available with open source alternatives."

Being a replacement for Microsoft Office isn't necessarily the point for all OOo backers. Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager for OpenOffice.org at Sun Microsystems, argued that OOo does more than Microsoft Office and fits a different user paradigm.

"We don't make the mistake of believing that one size fits all," Suarez-Potts explained.

In his view, one of the most important new features in OOo 3 is the enhanced ability to add new features and functionality via extensions, just as Firefox does today. For instance, a repository of add-ons is available at extensions.services.openoffice.org.

"It's important because it means that any user can significantly, not trivially, modify his version of OpenOffice.org or StarOffice [which shares the OOo code base] by accessing our growing repository ... and downloading his favorite extension," Suarez-Potts said. "There, you have a more useful application, all without bloat and needless bandwidth-hogging. One can add proprietary or free extensions; one can even simply link OOo to another application."

"The logic is immensely flexible and capable, and the code is easy enough to work with that just about any minimally trained person can do it," he added.

Suarez-Potts also noted that there is a PDF importer extension, which means you can import PDF files and then edit them. The ability to handle file formats, in particular open file formats, is a key point for Suarez-Potts.

"We use the OpenDocument Format (ODF), and what that means is that not only are users spared vendor lock-in, as an application can implement it -- different app, same format -- but one can have a variety of ad hoc and just-in-time applications to handle tasks," Suarez-Potts said.

"There is no need to rely on or expect any single application to do it all and to do so is to mistake the thrust of modern software, which is toward lightness and speed, and toward multiple applications working seamlessly together on the Web to do things previously only a single behemoth of an application was expected to do," he added.

Sun is no stranger to OOo. Suarez-Potts said many Sun engineers have been working on the underlying code for 20 years. Sun acquired the original StarOffice, on which OOo is based, in 1999. To date, Suarez-Potts said that there are more than 50 million users of OOo.

"The old dinosaur logic had it that big applications were compared to equally big applications and the one with the most features won," Suarez-Potts said. "The future is small, lightweight apps stitched together via the common thread of format and logic. Open or proprietary -- that is not the issue: open standard formats is. So, to think of OOo as replacing [Microsoft] Office is to realize that the very mental logic that would make us think in these terms is fatally flawed."

Updates prior version.