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
If so, you aren't alone, which may be one reason why the Open
Source community is growing.
If I were a betting man Id wager youre 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 theyd 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.
Theres 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 cant 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
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
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 doesnt, 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. Its 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 its 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 wont break their budgets. Now if only they could come up with a name
for open source that doesnt make it sound like some kind of skin
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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