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OpenOffice.org 3.3 Is Uninspiring: Review

The open-source office-productivity suite appears doomed for mediocrity, next to TDF’s LibreOffice

The OpenOffice.org suite may be in danger of becoming an also-ran among office-productivity suites, but not for any lack of capabilities or features. The 3.3 release of the suite debuted at the end of January, shortly after the release of its fraternal twin, LibreOffice 3.3, and is as polished as one might expect in a set of applications that have been under development in one form or another for roughly 20 years.

No, if OpenOffice.org 3.3 fails to gain traction, it will be because its potential users decline to be dependent on the whims of Oracle, which assumed the leadership of the project with the acquisition last year of Sun Microsystems. It didn’t have to be this way: Had Oracle chosen an uncharacteristically conciliatory path, the LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org projects would not have forked in the first place. Instead, three of the leading Linux distributions (Canonical, Novell and Red Hat) have rallied behind LibreOffice, leaving Oracle as the only significant supporter of the OpenOffice.org project.

For further details of the schism between the two open source office suites, see eWEEK’s review of LibreOffice 3.3.

A polished product

Aside from the debates over community control and the right of ownership, it’s hard for me to come up with significant faults in the OpenOffice.org suite. It’s polished and rather user-friendly, runs on a wide range of platforms and is well-suited for any organisation that doesn’t want to commit itself to Microsoft’s ecosystem of Exchange, SharePoint and their related tools.

It should be no surprise — given the relatively recent forking of the code base — that most, if not all, of the improvements in OpenOffice.org 3.3 are also available in the LibreOffice package. These shared elements range from the mundane, as in the new search toolbar and overhauled print interface, to the exotic, such as the added locale options and developer features that include new grid-control types and the ability to extend database drivers.

One of the more interesting features in OpenOffice.org 3.3 that I haven’t discussed elsewhere is the ability to assign custom document properties that include absolute date and time as well as duration. Document creators and editors assign these as pairs of names and corresponding values. Another is the redesigned thesaurus dialog, which offers multiple language choices for a synonym. Also new, as part of the context menu, is the “Synonyms” submenu that allows the user to replace the currently selected word with an appropriate alternative.

The Calc spreadsheet received a number of usability enhancements in this release of OpenOffice.org. Coloured sheet tabs for easier identification, automatic decimal display in the General cell format and new options for importing from CSV files are likely to be the most helpful to the widest range of user needs and skills. Advanced spreadsheet users will appreciate the new pop-up window for the DataPilot pivot table tool; users can assign custom display names to fields, items and totals in the DataPilot table.

The charting functions for the entire suite have seen vast improvement. Drawing objects can now be inserted into a chart and edited, and various attributes of text objects can be changed. Charts now allow the application of hierarchical axis labels when data from a spreadsheet is used. Charts with embedded data, as in the case of a Writer document or Impress presentation, allow direct input of text columns that are then used to create the different labels on the x-axis.

Database support has been improved in this release of OpenOffice.org’s Base data manager, thanks to the addition of the ability to explicitly specify that primary keys are always present. Previously, Base would try to determine this, not always successfully. Support for read-only database registrations is also new in this release; this allows for central deployment of configuration fragments containing database registrations without fear of their modification or removal — whether accidental or deliberate.

Adequate, but not distinctive

Upon reflection, the main disappointment in OpenOffice.org 3.3 is the lack of any features that make it stand out in comparison to LibreOffice 3.3. Although the LibreOffice developers found it possible to add several noteworthy and useful features to the code that forked from OpenOffice.org, there’s nothing in the OpenOffice.org suite that isn’t in LibreOffice.

OpenOffice.org 3.3 is certainly adequate for the task. The challenge ahead for its supporters will be to find ways to make the suite relevant because there simply isn’t room in this world for two open-source office suites. In some ways, this may be impossible. The Document Foundation seems to have captured for LibreOffice most of the intellectual capital and coding talent that formerly contributed to OpenOffice.org, and replacing those will present a formidable obstacle.

Perhaps, the most damningly faint praise I have to offer is that I would happily use OpenOffice.org if my job required it, instead of lobbying for LibreOffice as a replacement. It’s not so much that OpenOffice.org is bad; it’s actually rather good in many respects. Nevertheless, LibreOffice has more features than OpenOffice.org and a broader base of support. That alone will tip the balance for many evaluators.

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