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Linux desktop interoperability: MS Office and OpenOffice

The latest release of OpenOffice v3 has improved interoperability with Linux, Windows and MS Office. The more viable OpenOffice is, the more viable Linux is in general. The ultra-cheap Linux-based notebooks also now enable Linux to fit into the familiar world of PCs and Macs.

Oftentimes, when we discuss Linux interoperability, we tend to focus more on server-based applications. These usually include networking and security components such as routers and firewalls. On the application side, we sometimes focus on server-based applications such as databases and applications, including ERP apps. But what about the desktop? In this tip we'll discuss interoperability as it relates to PC clients – specifically MS Office and OpenOffice.

Any desktop discussion on Linux Interoperability from an application standpoint must start with OpenOffice (OOo), the popular open-source competitor to MS Office. Having just upgraded to the new version, OpenOffice v3 (OO3) from Office 2.4, I can personally attest to how impressive the application is.

OpenOffice v3 (released October 14th in 2008) offers users improvements on virtually every component: from the look and feel to features and functionality.

Perhaps what is most impressive about this release is that the majority of people who have downloaded the new release of 3.0 are Windows users. In fact, during its first two weeks out of the gate, out of 3 million downloads, only ½ million were for Linux. As of 11/14/2008, the OpenOffice thermometer shows over 12 million downloads since the official release on 10/13/2008 -- an extraordinary amount for an open source application most commonly associated with Linux.

Breaking down the statistic further, over 91% have been downloaded on Windows, with only 4.3% on Linux. Mac X OS comes in at a close third at 3.9%. This fascinating trend clearly shows that applications developed originally for Linux are really making substantial strides in the corporate Windows world. Certainly price is an important factor, as OOo is free – but growing dissatisfaction with Windows and Windows applications should not be minimized.

As a corporate user of applications in the workplace, I know very few people who like the look and feel of MS Office 2007. I actually like to parallel the differences between MS Office 2007 and Office 2003 with the differences between Windows Vista and XP. In fact, I hear almost the same complaints about Office 2007 as I do about Vista! Without going into all the changes, there were so many fundamental differences between the MS Office versions that in most cases a substantial amount of training would be required for people to actually be productive with Office 2007. I personally know of many people who actually downloaded OpenOffice so they can work with an application that looks like Office 2003! This is because it is virtually impossible to get a copy of Office 2003 online anymore. So if you can't a copy of the old MS Office, you might as well get the next best thing – especially if it's free.

Why else is this product so popular? It starts with the Interoperability factor -- supporting Windows, Linux. Solaris and now Mac X OS.

If you've already been a long-time user of OpenOfffice, you know that you're able to save your files from the default OOo format to MS Word compatibility; so that when you send files to the outside world, MS Office people can use your data. What about the reverse? There is actually some good news on this front. Sun has recently developed an ODF plug-in for office that allows users of Word, Excel and PowerPoint to read ODF documents. The only issue at this time is that while it works fine with MS Office 2003, it's only available on Service Pack 1 of MS Office 2007.

As far as general interoperability is concerned – here are the improvements in the most recent version of OpenOffice that I've identified:

  • Mac OS X support. With Version 3.0, is now able to run without the need for X11. With the comeback and proliferation of Macs in recent years – not having an OOo Mac client was a real impediment to marketing OOo as a complete cross-platform desktop application. Coming out with a Mac client is huge.
  • MS Office 2007 Import filters – V3 can now open up files created with MS Office 2007 or 2008 for the MAC. This is important because OpenOffice users can now interact with all versions of MS Office users.
  • OpenOffice 3 is the first version of the suite with some compatibility with the Office Open XML (OOXML) document format that was created in the latest version of Microsoft Office. It should also be noted that while OpenOffice 3 can read these documents it cannot save or write in that format.
  • OpenOffice 3 can also now open and save documents in OpenDocument Format (ODF) 1.2. That's a standard, increasingly mandated by governments, which is an extremely important feature. ODF2 also iincludes a powerful formula language as well as a sophisticated metadata model, which is based on the W3C standards RDF and OWL.

It goes without saying that the more viable OpenOffice is, the more viable Linux is in general. Furthermore, the latest fad -- the ultra-cheap Linux-based notebooks can now more easily fit into the latest collection of PCs and Macs. As most Linux proponents know – the barrier that Linux has had the most difficulty breaking has been the desktop. When people see Linux applications succeed outside of its domain – Linux in general becomes more acceptable in the corporate world, ultimately benefitting everyone. Here is the link to download the lates version of open office; if you have not yet downloaded this verson, I highly recommend it.

About the author:
Ken Milberg is a systems consultant with two decades of experience working with Unix and Linux systems. He is a Ask the Experts advisor and columnist.

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I'm finding that using is proving to be my true bridge to Office file access ubiquity. No need to have it installed on virtual machines or other devices when I merely need to access files for viewing or making a quick edit.