- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

I knew things were different when I added a word count button to the tool bar — on a free word-processing program that reads and writes Microsoft Word files.

OpenOffice 2.0 is here, or pretty close to here, because it’s available in a Beta release from www.openoffice.org.

Having “open-source” software means, in effect, that the world is your development lab: Anyone, anywhere, can come up with an improvement or fix for the program and submit it to the OpenOffice.org Web site (and community) for consideration. The group welcomes such freelance help on documentation, frequently asked questions and its marketing plan (the latter being found at marketing.openoffice.org).

This may be the only way that OpenOffice can compete with Microsoft, which has billions of dollars — and tens of thousands of employees — to dedicate to any given product or project. By getting itself out into the marketplace, OpenOffice is aiming to take some of Microsoft’s market share.

Whether this new version will succeed, there are some nice improvements. On the word-processing side, I like the ability to customize the toolbar so easily. I also like having a toolbar that not only looks like the one in Microsoft Word, but also has familiar Word features such as a formatting “paint brush” and a “Navigator” pane that shows what the active hyperlinks in a document are.

The program will read — and write — Microsoft Word-compatible files, as well as the Rich Text Format, a straight “text document” and export files in HTML and PDF, all just like the more-expensive programs. Compatibility, then, shouldn’t be a major problem.

The OpenOffice Writer program — its version of Word — is even more of a match for the Microsoft application than it was the last time this column looked at the OpenOffice package. Although a journalist might obsess over word-processing programs, they are important to everyone. Word processing is probably the major daily task of computer users in offices, schools and at home — at least when we are not surfing the Internet.

The suite includes a database, a spreadsheet, a presentation program and a drawing program. The spreadsheet is similar to Excel in form and function; I don’t think most users will have a problem working with it. The presentation offers quite a bit: two templates and a host of special effects., But it’s not yet a total clone of PowerPoint.

Then again, at the price, it doesn’t have to be; what you get here is certainly enough to begin with in making and using good presentations. (I’m also betting that a corporate-standard presentation PowerPoint format will make the move to OpenOffice’s “Impress” program without too much hassle.)

Some things remain the same from earlier versions: There’s no e-mail client, so be prepared to download Thunderbird (www.mozilla.org) if you want a free e-mail program to go with your free office suite. There are Mac versions of OpenOffice, but not this newest Beta release, yet.

As with any open-source program, support will be where you find it: on the Web, mostly, via discussion lists and message boards. Again, this is part of the nature of open-source software. If you can handle such ambiguities, free software isn’t a bad way to go.

What excites me overall is the continuing move of OpenOffice toward the full office application experience. There’s a lot to like here, and investigating it won’t cost you a penny.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com, or visit www.kellner.us.

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