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OpenOffice a Strong Competitor

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It's weird how things can come back to bite you. Microsoft Corp. killed off the competition for office software suites and became a de facto monopoly in the area, with what result? The competition is back and, this time, it's free!

The latest version of the free OpenOffice suite promises to be a strong competitor to Microsoft Office. It's still in the "beta," or unfinished, stage, but it's already a good alternative for people who aren't heavy users. And you can't argue with the price.

OpenOffice is the fruit of a collaboration between Sun Microsystems and volunteer programmers around the world. Sun bought a German company in 1999 to get office software to bundle with its computers but figured that it wasn't going to make big bucks selling the software to a wider market because of Microsoft's grip. So it released portions of the code to the public. It probably didn't hurt that archrival Microsoft loathes the idea of free software.

The first version of OpenOffice, released in 2002, attempted to imitate Office as closely as possible but fell short. It didn't open all Word documents properly, its spreadsheets could not be as big as Excel's and it completely lacked a database program to match Access. It wasn't a success.

The beta of version 2 fixes many of those problems. It opens Word, WordPerfect and Excel files flawlessly. Saved files open fine on Microsoft programs. It also adds a database program that's similar to Access.

Another new and nifty feature, not found in Office, gives you the option of saving a file as a PDF, the ubiquitous document format. To do the same in Office, you need to install Adobe Acrobat or one of its knockoffs.

Just as in the previous version, most controls will be familiar to those who have used Office. An example: the menu headings in Write, OpenOffice's word processor, are identical to those in Word except that "Tools" and "Table," which are next to one another, have switched places. Open the programs side by side and you will be hard pressed to tell which is which.

OpenOffice also contains an analog to Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation application, a drawing program and an app for writing mathematical formulas.

The chief drawback of OpenOffice is that it still lacks an equivalent to Microsoft's excellent Outlook e-mail and calendar program. This need not be a fatal flaw.

If you're fine with a simple e-mail program, you can download the free Thunderbird program from www.mozilla.org. If you need more features, just buy Microsoft Outlook for $109. That's still a lot cheaper than buying the entire Standard Edition Office suite for $399. (Of course, the Office edition for students and teachers costs $149, and no one's checking IDs).

My colleagues and I encountered some other problems with OpenOffice. Installation was difficult on some machines because OpenOffice relies on Sun's Java software, which does not come pre-installed on all Windows PCs (it's available for free from http:java.sun.com).

Write crashed a few times while saving documents, but we were able to recover the files. Hopefully, this is an issue that will be solved in the final version.

OpenOffice was also slower in opening and saving documents. For example, a large spreadsheet took 4 seconds to open in Calc but only 2 seconds in Excel. That's not much, but the difference can be magnified if your computer is old.

Base, the database program, has a confusing interface but Access isn't much better in this regard. The "help" files for the entire suite are not as thorough as those for Office.

Still, if you have a new home computer or are setting up a small office, I suggest giving OpenOffice a try. It may well meet your needs, and if it doesn't, you haven't lost much.

The beta version is available for Windows 98 or later versions and for the Solaris and Linux operating systems. There is no beta for Macintosh computers but the older version of OpenOffice is available for Macs running OS X.

The program requires at least 128 megabytes of computer memory - we ran it with far more.

PETER SVENSSON
AP Technology Writer

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