BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2007

  

 

BOOT CAMP 470 (03/04/07)

Office Software, the Freeware Alternative

 

If you want to create a document, spreadsheet, database or an audio-visual presentation then most people turn to the Microsoft Office suite of programs, and why not? It does the job, very well for the most part, and it is generally easy to use (for routine tasks at least) and beginners usually pick it up quite quickly. It is highly integrated; files and data are easily exchanged between the various programs. Most important of all, like it or loath it, Office is a multi-language, multi-platform standard and if you want to exchange documents, spreadsheets, databases or presentations with anyone else it’s Office or nothing. Or is it?

 

In fact over the years numerous rival office suites have come and (mostly) gone but none have rivalled MS Office for versatility and flexibility and enduring popularity, thanks to Microsoft’s powerful position and aggressive marketing.

 

However MS Office isn’t the only game in town and there is an alternative. It’s called OpenOffice.org and it’s one of the computer industry’s best-kept secrets. OpenOffice.Org is a part of the Open Source project (see this week’s Top Tip). It began life as the Star Office Suite more than 20 years ago and was later acquired by Sun Microsystems, who made the code publicly available. Nowadays a large community of users and programmers continue to contribute to its development.

 

I’ve saved the best bits until last. The programs that make up OpenOffice.org are almost entirely compatible with their MS Office equivalents, What’s more most of the programs look, feel and work like Office applications so there are no new tricks to learn and if you can use Office software you can definitely use OpenOffice.org. Versions are available for Windows (Win 98 onwards), Mac OS X and Linux and the icing on the cake is that it is completely free, and you can’t get any cheaper than that!

 

So what’s the catch? Basically there isn’t one. It hasn’t got the scope of the latest version of Office and there are a few omissions, notably a direct equivalent of Outlook. Some of the programs lack a few bells and whistles and the latest gimmicky features but most users probably won’t miss them. It can have difficulty with some older file types, but that’s about it. It’s more secure than Office because that the idiots who create the viruses, worms and Trojans that plague MS Office applications can’t be bothered to exploit the loopholes that undoubtedly exist, and because so few people use it is very difficult for infections to propagate.

 

We’ll round off this week with a brief overview of the package; next week how to download and install it plus a close look at the most important element, the OpenOffice.org alternative to Microsoft Word.

 

The current Version 2.1 comprises six main applications and heading up the list is the word processor program Writer. Suffice it to say the first time you see it you will think you are looking at Word, they are so similar.

 

Next is Calc, the spreadsheet program. It’s another Office look-alike and Excel users will feel immediately at home as it has broadly the same features and functionality. There are also a few extras that you won’t find in Excel, like the advanced graphing options and export to PDF function.

 

Impress is the OpenOffice.org version of PowerPoint. It comes with all of the tools you need to create eye-catching multimedia presentations. Wizards guide you through the process and there’s a fair assortment of clipart. It doesn’t have as many ready-made templates as PowerPoint but there are plenty of third-party examples freely available on the Internet.

 

The database program is called Base and in addition to compatibility with Microsoft Access it comes with a HSQL database engine for storing data in XML format and it can access dBase and most other popular database formats.

 

Draw is a very well appointed graphics editor, similar in some respects to CoralDraw, and just the job for creating diagrams and flowcharts. Key features include the facility to group, ungroup, regroup and edit objects, there’s a rendering option for 3D images, flowcharting tools and it is compatible with all popular image formats, (BMP, GIF, jpeg, png, TIFF and WMF.

 

Last but not least there’s Math, an equation editor that can be used on its own or in conjunction with Writer.

 

All OpenOffice.org programs have the same sort of integration as Office applications. They share the same basic layout and conventions and features like the spell-checker and data and files can be effortlessly exchanged between any of the programs. Unless you specify otherwise all files are saved in a common OpenDocument format. This is an industry standard XML based format, compatible not only with Office but a wide range of other non-Microsoft applications.

 

It all sounds too good to be true but don’t take my word for it. Make your own mind up, and it since it is free, gratis and for nothing what have you got to lose?  

 

 

Next Week – Office Software, the Freeware Alternative, pt 2

 

JARGON FILTER

 

 

HSQL

Hypersonic Structured Query Language. Relational database system written in Java scripting language

 

PDF

Portable Document Format - web-friendly, cross-platform format for encoding documents and graphics, normally viewed using free Adobe Acrobat Reader program

 

XML

Extensible Markup Language, a general purpose markup language, similar to HTML (used to create web pages) designed to allow information to be shared across the Internet

 

TIP OF THE WEEK

Open Source Software is a broad term covering a wide range of computer programs and operating systems that have been made publicly and normally freely available through the publication of the source code – the stuff that makes it tick. User communities made up of individuals, programmers and companies are encouraged to contribute to its development by modifying the code and adding functionality. Users are also free to redistribute the program, there are no royalties and licensing restrictions are generally minimal or fairly informal.

 

 

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© R. Maybury 2006, 2107

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