With the spread of open source alternatives to commercial applications, more and more users are going directly for free software, and might not even see the need to get a hold of bootleg copies of “professional” programs. Applications such as VLC, Filezilla or Firefox are obvious choices, and, coincidently, are completely free and open source. In fact, there are so many, that there are websites, such as OSLAT, that are exclusively dedicated to finding open source alternatives to commercial software.
When you assess the use of an average user, the common applications would be a web browser, media player, and office applications. And while the former two are well-secured in the open source domain, the latter leaves plenty of room for argument.
OpenOffice.org released version 3.0 in October of last year, and have recently come up with a refined 3.1 that is available for download. The bundle includes five applications:
- Writer: Word processor
- Calc: Spreedsheets
- Impress: Presentations
- Draw: Drawing and illustration
- Base: Databases
In theory, this seems like solid gold as it offers all of the functionality that is needed, while being completely free and open source. However, the reality is somewhat different. When analyzing the office applications, we would have to compare them to Microsoft Office 2007 on PC, or the 2008 version on Mac. Even though they’re commercial, the huge majority are either willing to pay a relatively small fee to be legitimate owners, or have no problem obtaining illegal copies. Therefore, the main advantage has somewhat diminished, and we are left with some weaknesses:
- Interface: Even if you use your office applications strictly for work, an attractive sleek interface is something you cannot live without. Unfortunately, not too much effort has been invested in the aesthetics of OpenOffice.org
- Usability: When it takes more than 30 seconds to find basic functions, even the stubbornest of open source addicts will become frustrated. OpenOffice.org is simply not intuitive enough, and it feels rigid and at times complex
- Formats: OpenOffice.org supports all of the formats that you can think of, but the average users click on “save” without a moment’s thought. And since the default format is .odt (or depending on the application), you are immediately amidst compatibility issues
- Functionality: There are a number of features that are exclusive to OpenOffice.org, but for the most part, it falls short of the endless features offered by commercial counterparts (such as Microsoft Office). For example, playing with themes and choosing custom colors is beyond OpenOffice.org’s services
Overall, OpenOffice.org 3.1 is comparable to the earlier versions of MS Office (2003 PC, 2004 Mac). For more users to come on board, there has to be a huge leap forward, such as that seen in other open source applications. Otherwise users will always be left with this feeling of unnecessary sacrifice when they venture with the free office applications. Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism, as the project can only improve and become more competent.
It seems that going open source with such fundamental tools, such as office applications, could just be the final step before embarking the big stage: the Operating System.