The decade-old OpenOffice was the Free and Open Source riposte to Microsoft's Office that has entrenched itself in the office productivity suite segment.

Originally a proprietary software application that was open-sourced by Sun Microsystems, OpenOffice has come a long way, with the release of its new-improved version 3.2. Today, having crossed 300 million downloads — a third of this over the last year — this community project is among the most successful stand-alone Open Source products.

Data legacy and incompatibility issues, as a majority of office software was already using proprietary applications, and widespread piracy, retarded early growth. Constantly competing with MS Office, it got better with successive iterations, though it has not quite caught up. The latest version, Office 2010, is due for release and offers browser versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, across the PC, mobile phone and browser.

Open Office 3.2

The most in-your-face improvements of Open Office 3.2 Writer are the reduced start-up time (down by 46 per cent, it claims) and more features on Calc, its spreadsheet programme. It offers improved compatibility with proprietary file formats, including password-protected files, and increased compliance with Open Document Format (ODF) standards that have now been adopted by several countries.

Why Open Office?

For starters. OpenOffice is free — as in free beer and freedom/liberty, to roughly borrow the famous Richard Stallman analogy for Free Software. So when MS Office 2007 for home users costs Rs 3,000, and between Rs.14,000 and Rs.17,000 for professionals, OpenOffice is free.

Though the frills and fancies are missing in the user interface, including simple features like a thesaurus, for a regular user what OpenOffice offers is basic and adequate.

As for the “freedom” it offers, OpenOffice has driven localisation in a big way. Sunil Abraham, director of the Centre for Internet and Society, points out that its support for language computing is key. OpenOffice is available in 26 Indian languages (led by the CDAC's BharateeyaOO team and independent FOSS communities), years before proprietary options were available. Even today, Microsoft's Office Suite offers 12 languages, while OpenOffice offers dictionaries, thesaurus, spelling and grammar check.

Though it has not been widely adopted in the way it is in Europe, there are some success stories, Mr. Abraham says. For instance, the Delhi government and the Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu are migrating to OpenOffice.

New acquisition

With proprietary giant Oracle recently acquiring Sun Microsystems, the FOSS community that has contributed reams of code to Sun's Open Source project — like OpenOffice, OpenSolaris, and more importantly MySQL — is apprehensive. But with no competing Office products, there is little reason for Oracle to kill OpenOffice. Michael Bemmer, general manager of Global Business Unit, asserts OpenOffice will remain Open Source and free. “The Oracle Office product family will be the first desktop-to-web-to-mobile solution centred on the ODF document standard — running on any platform, any device.”

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