November 24, 2006

Writing about web page

So, I’m going to give a brief overview of the OpenOffice software – a free open source office suite for Linux, Windows and MacOSX.

I first used Open Office in the Linux room of the maths department in my first year, and at the time, although it was adequate for reading and editing Word docs, I found it was underpowered compared to the MS office suite I had back at home. Of course, as anyone that knows the maths department will tell you, the software on the computers in A0.01 have rather out of date software on.

Last week, I saw a news story on one of my RSS feeds about how open office is now supporting MS VBA – visual basic for applications, a language for writing macros, which I use most of the time I use Excel – and decided to give it another try. Unfortunately, I didn’t fancy the Novell branded version (a full ~500Mb ISO image), and didn’t want to compile my own. However, I was told by a friend that OOo has its own OOo Basic language, similar to VBA, and there are only a few additions to the new version to make it entirely compatible.

So, what does OOo consist of? You are provided with the standard office features – word processor, spreadsheet, presentation designer and database – along with a couple of extra bits (a math design mode, like MS Equation Editor, and a drawing program similar to Visio). Everything is saved in Open Document Format normally, but things can be saved in Microsoft or Lotus formats, PDF and even as LaTeX source.

So going back to my experience, I downloaded Open Office before creating a spreadsheet for some simple programming (calculating a collection of rational approximations to e) since my copy of MS Office is starting to play up these days (strange how we just accept the fact that as computers get older they start breaking, even if they’re exactly the same as before… That’s for another day though). I installed the software (a 93 Mb download for Windows – tiny really), and jumped straight into Calc – the Open Office spreadsheet.

Moving around Calc felt immediately familiar, with all control buttons in a similar place to in MS Excel. Going straight to the Tools menu, I found the Macros… option, and chose to organise my macros in the Open Office BASIC window. Finding where to put my macro wasn’t immediately obvious – the layout is slightly different to in Excel – but was really obvious enough. Most everything in OOoB is the same as VBA, however there are a few significant differences. You cannot just call “Cells(x,y)” to read or write, you have to perform a rather longer set of commands. Bear in mind, however, that OOoB can be used in any of the Office tools, not just calc. Writing my macro was as easy as in VBA really, and the Help menu is decent (better PDF documentation is available from the OOo website). One issue I did have was pressing the play button in the IDE to run the macro didn’t work, but this turned out to be my fault for not reading the documentation – I simply needed to save somewhere else or run from Calc instead. Finally, on macros, OOo also appears to support Python and something else – unfortunately this is not really my area so I can’t go any futher on that.

So, what about the rest of Calc? Well, it seems to provide all the usability of Excel and then some, from all the in-cell functions to being able to create simple commands with words (eg “profits – losses” given correct titles – this is like Excel for Dummies). Obviously, these for Dummies-esque bits do not really get in the way of everything else, and can be switched off in a jiffy.

The 2 random bits – Math and Draw – work well at what they do, creating Math equations (albeit not with quite as easy to use a GUI as equation editor, although a lot quicker) or creating Hierachical diagrams or even logos quite easily. I have to say though, I will not be using these a lot – if I need to write maths I use LaTeX, if I need to draw things, I’ll use the GIMP.

Writer (the word processor) is powerful and fast, with everything you could need (like mail merge and autocorrect) and some stuff most people would never touch (Python Macros anyone?). It’s a similar story with Impress (Powerpoint) and Base (Access). In fact, being like MS Office and then some seems to be a recurring theme throughout OOo, and with the ability to export to PDF being a big draw to many people (given that the only other way would be through Adobe Acrobat Standard, costing extra money over MS Office), I really feel this is something which could potentially replace MS Office in the home and workplace.

So, in conclusion:


- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Except that the massive changes in Office 2007 makes it several orders of magnitude better than OpenOffice.

    Also, CutePDF is free and allows you to export to pdf from any program that is capable of printing.

    24 Nov 2006, 19:55

  2. Ralph Elliot

    Get Open office, if you think it lacks some features then contribute by either helping the development or by donating. By making free products like gimp and open office more competitive will create pressure on large software houses to create affordable effective products.

    22 Mar 2007, 14:51

  3. I realise that this is probably 4 months late, but I have to say I’m not convinced by the conceived benefits offered by Office 07.

    The XDOC format has been repeatedly attacked by a large number of major organisations as essentially trying to jump on the back of open source momentum when it is not, in fact, open source itself. The new floating bar thing to replace current File/Edit… Toolbars is yet another unnecessary complication, and many businesses will find it to be an extra cost to retrain people who are already proficient in old versions of office. Furthermore, there have been many articles of late suggesting people stay away from Windows Vista and the new Office suite because of MS tie-ins and new unsupported formats.

    I am not “anti Microsoft” – I use Windows (well, Ubuntu on my laptop, but that’s mainly because it crashes and runs slow with XP), I love the C# tutorials they host, I use C# Express Edition 2005 etc etc, but I personally am going to stay away from Office 07 and Vista, at least until the dust settles.

    Oh, and one other thing, I realise that this post has been focussed mainly at the business side of things, but I do still believe that for large businesses MS Office is still the way to go, in the same way that I would suggest Photoshop to a graphics designer over the Gimp. However, this post is aimed toward a student, and as such the advantages offered by much of the commercial software on the market is minimal. OK, you’re printing stuff in CMYK for your society, then don’t use the Gimp. You’re working as a big team on some document and need Office’s collaboration tools (since not everyone has, then don’t use However for most day-to-day activities, open source alternatives are real alternatives which offer fully functional software, sometimes with great advantages over their commercial counterparts (re: Python scripting in OO Calc).

    Anyway, if Andrew would like to open a discussion over the advantages of Office 2007 for a student and prove me wrong – feel free. I accept that I may not know about some awesome features, and if they exist then I will take off my hat to you.


    22 Mar 2007, 15:58

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