An Introduction to OpenOffice

OpenOfficeLast month I wrote about open source software and suggested a few open source applications that are worth trying out. This month I am going to continue the theme by going a bit deeper into the OpenOffice suite of applications.

OpenOffice is a free and open alternative to the MS Office suite of applications. Like MS Office it comes with a word processor, a spreadsheet application and an application for creating presentations, all of which are easy to use and produce a very high standard of document. In recent years OpenOffice has started to find its way into corporate environments as well as households. Increased compatibility with Microsoft file formats and rapidly decreasing corporate and personal budgets have put OpenOffice on the map for those wanting an affordable alternative office suite. The French police services have been migrating to OpenOffice since 2005 and have saved upwards of two million euros in the process.

There are a few things to bear in mind when you are using OpenOffice. Even though compatibility with Microsoft document formats is very good (and in some cases better than Microsoft’s compatibility with its own products), there are still issues when you are creating documents or using document templates that rely heavily on Microsoft’s  proprietary macro language. In most cases this won’t matter; daily word processing tasks and simple spreadsheets don’t tend to need the same macro capabilities as you would find people using in big accounts departments.

So before I send you into a deep sleep with boring facts and figures about macros and licenses, I will tell you one last thing: Before you install OpenOffice, you must be aware that there is no annoying paper clip. As much as I would like to tell you that OpenOffice has an animated paper clip with an annoying voice, I can’t. He isn’t there and we will have to do without him.

Obtaining and installing OpenOffice

Getting a copy of OpenOffice is easy:
Simply point your favourite browser to
Next click ‘I want to download’
Click ‘Download now!’

OpenOffice works on Windows, Mac OSX and Linux, and the website should offer you the right file automatically. Once you have finished the download, you can browse to your Downloads folder, double-click on the OpenOffice install file and follow the installation wizard.

Take a peek in your applications menu. You should now see OpenOffice and its component applications:

  • Writer (the word processor)
  • Calc (a spreadsheet application)
  • Base (a database application)
  • Impress (a presentation application)

Getting started

Fire up the OpenOffice Writer and instantly you will find yourself with a very familiar-looking interface. A lot of people prefer the simplicity of the OpenOffice interface to the overcomplicated and bulky interface on newer versions of MS Office.

  • Opening documents is easy – simply use the standard File>Open method and browse to the document of your choice.
  • Saving documents works the same way as File>Save As. Remember, though, that OpenOffice has its own office format, ODT. Don’t worry, you still have the option to save in a variety of MS Office formats when you use the Save As dialogue.
  • You can also set OpenOffice to save in MS formats by default. Just navigate to Tools>Options>Load/Save>General, look for ‘Always save as’, set it to the file format of your choice, then click OK.
  • To get the right measurement standard for your ruler, just right-click on the ruler and choose the measurement standard you work with.
  • Margins and padding can be set by dragging the handles on the ruler or Format>Page.

If you have used an Office suite before, you will probably find yourself quite at home with OpenOffice. All the functionality you need is there and the icons are quite recognisable. Finding help is easy – the OpenOffice site contains a wealth of information, and simply Googling Open Office tutorials will take you to a wealth of tutorials and tips dealing with everything from formatting to complicated spreadsheet tasks. There is also a wealth of templates to be found on the thousands of sites dedicated to OpenOffice.

OpenOffice does have its quirks, and I would recommend giving it some thorough testing if you intend to edit documents that are used by colleagues who are not using OpenOffice. But it is a fantastic application and is certainly the best available alternative to MS Office. The fact that it is open source and freely available means it’s worth considering, be it for home use or in the office environment. It is by far the most complete competitor to MS Office and is trusted by many businesses and government departments around the world. Every release sees greater functionality introduced, without the fear of reduced usability. OpenOffice is definitely a product worth trying.