The many faces of OpenOffice

Variants from IBM, Novell, Sun, and elsewhere tout a variety of advantages over the core

A chameleon: That's what I think of when I ponder the myriad variations on the theme that have cropped up in recent years. Ever since Sun Microsystems decided to release the StarOffice source code into the public domain, ambitious open source developers have been actively tweaking, tuning, and spinning the bits into ever more specialized iterations. And while the majority of these variants have achieved only niche status, a few commercially driven projects have had a direct impact on the broader OpenOffice community.

One of the higher-profile projects is Lotus Symphony, a free solution from IBM that takes the core OpenOffice application engine and wraps it inside a unified shell program for editing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Symphony further tweaks the OpenOffice experience by incorporating various custom UI elements, including a vertical tools dock that hosts the majority of the editing and configuration controls. It's a very stylized take on an OpenOffice implementation, but many users report an uneven experience plagued by various functional quirks and generally poor application performance.

[ SoftMaker Office 2008 edges 3.1 in Office document compatibility. See the Test Center review. Compare their results in our Office-compatibility torture test. ]

Another variant is, a Novell-sponsored project that promises even better Microsoft Office file format "fidelity" than the core compilation. proponents also tout support for VBA macros and claim to offer the only variant that correctly renders embedded Visio diagrams (such as AutoShape drawings). However, a quick test of the current build shows that's implementation mangles the AutoShape drawings from our torture test document just as severely as the core, though it did handle the bulleted list better, including preserving the hanging indent. According to the project Web site, the team is also less "political" than the core OpenOffice folks, whatever that means.

Clearly, there is no single definition of what constitutes an OpenOffice implementation, though for most purposes the image produced and distributed by the Web site is generally considered to be the "core" version. However, as is often the case with free open source solutions, such fragmentation can be both a blessing and a curse: a blessing in that it allows outside teams to improve upon the base project, but a curse in that it makes it all the more difficult to keep track of those critical developments that span multiple projects.

But one thing is for certain: If you don't like the way your current OpenOffice variant works, just look around. Chances are someone, somewhere, is working on a version that will suit your specific needs. (Check this list of popular OpenOffice variants.) And if not, and you possess the necessary programming skills, you can always roll your own. Such is the advantage of open source.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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