OpenOffice turns 3.0

12:00 am Articles, Ask the Geek

On October 13, OpenOffice.org, the beloved (and seductively free) office productivity suite, released its milestone version 3.0. The document-making, spreadsheet-calculating, presentation-presenting free open-source project boasts a few new features, a new startup routine, and a few bells and whistles to show off. Also, big news for Mac users: It natively supports Mac OS X now.

Response appears to be overwhelming. When I downloaded my copy on October 14, the Web site was still buckling under the strain. A simple black-on-white site read, “Apologies – our website is struggling to cope with the unprecedented demand for the new release 3.0 of OpenOffice.org. The technical teams are trying to come up with a solution.” Below that was a plain table with links to download mirrors. The new release is available in fifteen different languages for four different operating systems.

The download speed didn’t seem to be suffering, so I was installing my copy in no time (and wrote this article using it). It’s fun to note how fast an installer can go when it doesn’t have to stop and make a human type in fifty random letters and numbers for licensing purposes.

One of the most important new features concerns compatibility. When Microsoft released Office 2007 (and 2008 for the Mac), it came with a new default file format called “.docx.” Unfortunately, older versions of Microsoft Office don’t support the “.docx” format, so if your business colleague happens to wind up with the new version of Office, one of you has to go through hoops to make the document compatible between the two of you. Thankfully, OpenOffice.org (OO.org) 3.0 can read “.docx” as well as the new formats for Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint.

Does it work? For my extensive testing, I tried to open the first “.docx” file I could find in my documents folder. As luck would have it, the file was a letter with an embedded envelope, at least a mild challenge. It opened fine. However, as with everything, your mileage may vary.

Big note: OO.org can’t save in “.docx” format, or any of the other “x” formats. The secret formulas are still too deep in Microsoft Mountain for a lowly open-source project.

I noticed something new — I can’t swear it wasn’t in previous versions, but if it was, I never noticed it. You can add extensions to OO.org, like extra programs with new features, just like with Firefox. It’s not exactly point-and-click, but certainly no great feat for a novice computer user. Just go to “Tools,” then “Extension Manager…” Click “Get more extensions here…” and your browser will open.

In my case, I found a nifty package of extensions called “Writer’s Tools.” I downloaded a zip file, extracted it, then pointed the “Extension Manager” toward the folder from the zip file. After a few seconds, I restarted OpenOffice and I had a spiffy new “Writer’s Tools” menu option.

There are tons of extensions to try.

I’ll admit, even though I whined about the “ribbon” toolbar in Microsoft Office 2007 for a long time, after using it for several months, I truly enjoy it. Now, looking up at a toolbar with the same boring style and the same basic features that I’ve been looking at since Microsoft Office 4.3 (for Windows 3.1), I think I’m starting to understand what Microsoft was doing.

In other words, OpenOffice, though steadily adding new features, is starting to look a little dated.

There’s one thing I still like about OpenOffice, and this might seem dumb to you. I like that when you click “Save,” the icon goes gray until you actually change the document again. For compulsive savers like me, it’s reassuring. If I make a few changes, then “undo” each of them, back to the last point I saved, the icon goes gray again, as if to say, “Chill out, friend — there’s nothing to save.”

This release of OO.org appears to be stable, feature-rich, and eager to stay current. Try it for yourself.

Links:

  • Download OpenOffice.org 3.0 (if their Web servers hold up to the strain) for Windows, Mac, Linux and even Solaris at http://www.openoffice.org.

(This article was originally published in the Amarillo Independent newspaper.)

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