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Open Office - Good, Flexible - and Free

by Jim Bray

Are you tired of computer software that costs and arm and a leg, or that requires an activation process that makes you feel like a criminal in waiting?

If so, you aren't alone, which may be one reason why the Open Source community is growing.

If I were a betting man I’d wager you’re going to hear a lot about Open Source software in the next couple of years.

Source code is the very heart of computer software, kind of like its DNA, and most of the software industry biggies guard the code, thinking that otherwise they’d lose control of their products and have to get a job working for someone else.

The idea behind open source is simple: when programmers can access the source code for a piece of software, they improve it, adapt it, fix bugs - and since this is happening in a virtually unencumbered free market and unrelated groups can be working in parallel, this evolution can happen more quickly than in the more structured environment of many Big Software Companies.

There’s more to the movement than just giving away the source code, of course. The official Open Source Initiative, for example, also requires free redistribution of open source software, with the code included, and you can’t prevent anyone from improving the product on his or her own.

One of the applications that's leading the way is OpenOffice, an Office suite that gives just about everything you could want from a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. Perhaps most convenient of all, it opens most major file formats such as MS Office flawlessly, though it doesn't convert macros.

I never use macros anyway, so that part isn't a big deal for me. But I do open Word, Excel and PowerPoint files all the time, and you can even set OpenOffice to use those file formats as their default. This means OpenOffice users can still be completely compatible with Microsoft Office, right up to version XP, so you can keep sharing files with coworkers and friends.

The main programs are called Write, Calc and Impress, and there's also a Draw program and HTML editor thrown in. The latter two are okay, but they're no CorelDraw or Dreamweaver, and I don't think most people will opt for OpenOffice because of its drawing or HTML capabilities.

And that's okay; there's plenty to like with the main apps. In fact, I now use Write more often than Microsoft Word., which is also the address of the Web site from which you can download it says its mission is, and I paraphrase, to create, as a community, the leading international office suite that will run on all major platforms and provide access to all functionality and data. And so far it has versions for Windows, Mac OS 10 and Linux – and it's available in about 25 different languages.

Okay, the idea of a community making software may seem a bit communist, but in this case it works and the product is good. I can see legions of Microsoft bashers adopting it on principle – while others try OpenOffice because it's a good product that works.

And, oh, did I tell you it's free?

Now, the idea of innumerable disparate developers working on software may sound kind of like an unlimited number of monkeys typing the Great Novel, so the big question is: how does this cooperative nirvana make money?

Well, a lot of it doesn’t, but some big name companies are embracing open source to make their products better, so there must be at least the potential for some cash somewhere. IBM, for example, uses the open source Apache Web server in its WebSphere e-commerce product, while Apple - traditionally one of the more propriety companies - released the core layers of its Mac OS 10 Server as an open source operating system called Darwin.

Open source is commodity software, done because somebody wants it, not because somebody wants to sell it. It’s been around for years, building momentum in the cultures that created the Internet. In fact, my Browser of choice right now is Mozilla, an open source rebranding of Netscape, except that it’s better.

Open Source may not be a groundswell yet, but if developers really can build a better mouse trap, that path may get beaten to their door. If nothing else companies and individuals will have access to quality software that won’t break their budgets. Now if only they could come up with a name for open source that doesn’t make it sound like some kind of skin condition!

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006