- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2002

I had an extended discussion with a colleague the other day about a notion he had. We were talking about the steps a small business might need (or want) to take in order to computerize quickly and cheaply.
Why not, he said, forget about Microsoft Office XP a concededly "chunky" software purchase for a small firm, costing as much as $600 for a single copy in favor of a free program such as StarOffice 6.0, due later this spring from Sun Microsystems. My friend was using a Beta version, and he thinks it's just fine.
The Beta program is on hiatus right now, so I couldn't duplicate his experience. Instead, I downloaded, and installed, a copy of OpenOffice.org 641. While the name sounds a little Ray Bradbury-ish, this software is part of a rather interesting program designed to create an office software "suite" that will run on a variety of computer platforms including Windows, Unix and Linux, and make the source code available to developers for refinement and customization. Along the way, the program is supposed to be able to open, read and write files compatible with Microsoft's Office XP suite. Details of all this are found at the www.openoffice.org Web site.
It's an interesting idea, if for no other reason than economics. If you have more than one computer at home or work, and need to run the basics, such as word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing, you can install Microsoft Office on two of your own systems, but beyond that, you need to license more copies, and that can put a dent in any start-up's budget. And some organizations, as my friend suggested, just don't have the bucks to "site license" any major software, so this becomes an opportunity.
It's also interesting, I think, because you never know what other minds can bring to the party. In the case of OpenOffice.org 641, it includes the ability to save all files in an XML, or Extensible Markup Language, format, which can be useful in Web design and other work. Within the word processor, it includes a rather interesting auto-completion feature that seems to think a bit ahead as I write, offering to complete some words before I finish them, and being "right" about 30 percent of the time.
During my brief time working with the OpenOffice program, I opened up files created in Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet and PowerPoint presentation software programs, with good success on both fronts: the files opened correctly and I was able to work within the new programs easily, as controls and features more or less matched what I knew in the original programs.
So, why not "junk" dear old Microsoft Office and go with one of the new kids on the block? It's tempting, and it's something I may do when taking a portable PC to test on the road. However, there are still some qualms.
For one, neither the new version of StarOffice nor the OpenOffice version I tested have a personal information manager, or PIM. (I learned about the StarOffice deficiency from an excellent review of the new program by Greg Kezier on www.cnet.com.) There are PIMs available on the market you can buy Microsoft Outlook for around $150, I believe and you can cobble one of those onto your system and it should work in some harmony with OpenOffice, at least.
But beyond that, there were other considerations that sent me back to the more comfortable shores of Microsoft. I couldn't find an easy word-count feature in OpenOffice, try as I might, and the program wouldn't write to a Microsoft document file format. (It did save an HTML file which opened just fine under Word, however.)
So it comes down, in my opinion, to what a user knows and is most comfortable with. I keep trying alternatives to Microsoft Office because I believe such should be encouraged and I plan to keep looking at StarOffice and OpenOffice and anything else that comes along. When push comes to shove, however, and my daily bread is on the line, I'll head for the software I know, trust and whose maker can be reached on the phone to yell at if need be.
Those are not necessarily the main features of Microsoft Office XP that I'd recommend to a friend, but they're pretty good ones when the rubber meets the road.

Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mr. Kellner on www.adrenalineradio.com every Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. EST.

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