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August 30th, 2001

I’ve just downloaded the latest build of OpenOffice.org, the Open Source package that used to be StarOffice, and I’m thoroughly impressed. The quality of the software was always pretty good, but they’ve made important changes in the way users interact with it.

First, they’ve got rid of the most-hated feature in StarOffice: its attempt to provide a whole new desktop, including a Start menu, within a window on your regular desktop. Each document is now a separate window, as it should be. I knew they’d have to drop the Start menu when they started porting it to MacOS X. It would have been too ridiculous.

Secondly, they’ve removed two big features, which makes a wonderful change in this world of ever-increasing feature bloat. The web browser and email reader weren’t bad at all, but they were never going to be my browser and emailer of choice. There are good alternatives available, and abandoning these components concentrates effort on the more important parts. I certainly won’t mourn their departure.

The third very good decision was to switch to XML as the file format. Each document is actually a ZIPped set of files and directories – the contents are in contents.xml, the styles in styles.xml etc. If your document has embedded images, they will be in a Pictures subdirectory within the ZIP archive. This has to be the Right Way to do it. If something is broken, you can open the document with WinZip and fix things yourself with a text editor. I’ve done it. I changed the style of some text. I tweaked some colours, sizes, and positioning of items in a drawing. I then saved the files and closed WinZip, and reopened them in the word-processor and carried on. Try doing that with Word. Manipulation by other software, and conversion to and from other formats, should be very straightforward.

So, for the big question. Would I actually use it myself in preference to Microsoft Office? Well, I’m very tempted. There are still a few rough edges, and there is no ‘Help’ documentation yet, but the conversion filters are good, and the underlying philosphies are so sound that there aren’t many reasons not to switch. I can also run it on all the operating systems I use.

But if you are interchanging data frequently with Microsoft users, then however good the alternative, it won’t be as convenient as if you used Microsoft. If you’re to switch, you need incentives which make it worth the inconvenience. And the problem is that most users of Office don’t pay for it. It is provided by their employer. Otherwise, I think, the £350 price of Office would now be sufficient incentive for most people.