February 20, 2002

Why Linux users need OpenOffice

Author: JT Smith

- By Robin 'Roblimo'
I have had a love/hate relationship with StarOffice 5.2 since it first came out. I've used it successfully to open, read, and modify files created with Microsoft Office, but for little else, because it was a bloated, often irritating program that tried to do too much and didn't do it all well. OpenOffice does just about everything StarOffice ever did, but it has lost most of StarOffice's irritating features. It is as usable an "Office" package as you'll find in any operating system, and you sure can't beat the $0.00 price.

As a writer, I am often forced to deal with publishers who are absolutely, irretrievably locked into Windows and MS Office for the foreseeable future. Even when their Windows computers have just been infected with viruses or have crashed for the umpteenth time in the last month, when I suggest switching to Linux and StarOffice, they act as if I am suggesting moving to Mars to get away from rush hour traffic or something similarly bizarre. For many in the publishing business, MS Office has become as much a part of life as breathing. And because their employers provide their software, they don't worry about cost. MS Office is a fact of life for them, like breathing or car insurance, and the idea of giving it up is simply so far outside of their imaginations that anyone who suggests it is obviously a loon.

But even loons must eat. And this means we must be able to deal with "normal" people who do their work in MS proprietary formats despite the many reasons they shouldn't do this. Hence, my dependance on StarOffice or a similar program may be co-dependance, but it is a fact of life nonetheless.

The accusations leveled against StarOffice 5.2 (and earlier versions) have always been correct. It was slow, bloated, and took over your entire desktop when you started it up. The menus were clunky and not very intuitive. But to balance the list of complaints, there was always the fact that StarOffice, and StarOffice alone, allowed me to work collaboratively with MS Office users on lengthy projects. AbiWord can't do this. Believe me, I have tried, but its handling of embedded graphics in large .doc files is somewhere between "awful" and "horrid," and it has balked or crashed every time I have tried to use it to mark up manuscript copy in Word/Office style. So, like it or not, we're back to StarOffice -- or now, the much nicer OpenOffice -- once again.

Imagine a better, faster StarOffice
OpenOffice starts up fairly quickly. On the 800 MHz, 256 Mb RAM HP laptop I use for everyday work, it takes less then six seconds to get going. It uses a minimum of 170 MB of hard disk space, only slightly less than the 180 MD minimum required for StarOffice 5.2, and full installations of either one, including all available "cruft," run closer to 250 MB. This is fairly reasonable for a program that does so much. To back up the "so much" claim, here is a list of tasks I have personally performed with OpenOffice:

  • Opened .doc, .xls, .bmp, .rtf, ASCII, and .ppt files, altered them in their native formats, and sent them back to their originators, who then had no problems opening and using them.

  • Written documents as long as 10,000 words, and inserted (quite large) print-quality TIFF and other graphics files in them without a burp, then saved those documents in OpenOffice's native XML, in .doc, and in HTML without a burp.

  • Created simple graphics, altered the size and characteristics of complicated ones (i.e. prepped them for WWW publication, my most common graphics task).

  • Created letterheads and other common "small business" print materials, and printed them out cleanly on a common (HP) inkjet printer with one click.

  • Made slide presentations, including animated graphics, in a few minutes, no problem, and showed them through a digital projector.

  • Created and manipulated simple spreadsheets, then added them to text (.XML) documents.

  • Made a rudimentary two-column newsletter, with a couple of photos in it -- and used OpenOffice to convert the photos to greyscale for black and white printing.

There are other functions I did not test, including "mail merge" creation of personally-addressed form letters and addressed envelopes. But the ones I did try all worked without a hitch.

I'm using OpenOffice build 641, not the "next" stable release, now slated to be version 1.0.0. I look forward to testing this one when it comes out, although I am satisfied enough with build 641 that I see no urgent need to upgrade, and it will take some strong going on the part of the "soon to come out" commercial StarOffice 6.0 to get me to move away from Open Source OpenOffice.

Here are some specific improvements OpenOffice offers over StarOffice 5.2. Some may seem minor, but they are major usability factors for a busy worker:

  • "One click" copying. StarOffice 5.2 required Windows-style Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. I always hated this. One of the great Linux advantages for a hard-working writer or admin person is the ability to copy text by highlighting it, then either clicking the center button on a three-button mouse or both buttons simultaneously on a two-button mouse to paste it wherever. Now, with OpenOffice, I can do that -- and not just within OpenOffice, but to and from other programs I use all day, notably Netscape or Mozilla. Yay!

  • I get to control my desktop. MS Office and StarOffice 5.2 take over your entire monitor screen by default. I hate that. Yes, I need my word processor or whatever other "Office" program I'm using to be in a nice, big box, but I also tend to have IRC going in XChat, and a bunch of browser windows open most of the time, plus a terminal window or two, and maybe even XMMS or some other multimedia program playing a little music while I work. OpenOffice doesn't suffer from the "I am everything you need" hubris problem shared by MS Office and StarOffice 5.2. It knows its place, you might say. And I like that in a program.

  • Maybe this is just me, but I found it a lot easier to turn off the "autocorrect" and "autocomplete" features in OpenOffice than in StarOffice 5.2. I hate these things. Imagine trying to type the phrase, "Yahoo! is a Web directory," and having some moron piece of software insist on capitalizing the word "is" because it comes after a punctuation mark commonly used to end a sentence. Well, this time, Mr. Office Program, it's not the end of a sentence, okay? So quit trying to ram your opinion about correct punctuation usage down my throat! And if I want a word's spelling checked or corrected, Mr. Office Program, I'll let you know, thank you! I find it easier and faster to choose my own words. I don't need "smart tags" from Microsoft Office, either. I need and like what OpenOffice gives me (now that I have disabled the "auto" features): a quiet, nonintrusive program that helps me do my work instead of telling me how to do it.

There are a few tiny flaws in the OpenOffice build I am using, but none of them have given me any grief. Compared to MS Office 97, this is a smoothie. There are plenty of OpenOffice features I still haven't explored, and maybe they have some "showstopper" bugs in them. But then, hardly anyone uses all the features in a full-scale office program, and I use as many as most users are likely to in the course of my day's work, and I have been totally satisfied with OpenOffice so far.


  • Open Source
Click Here!