3.0 Promises New Life for Office Software

by Ostatic Staff - Sep. 18, 2008 is in an unenviable place. Office suites -- word processors, spreadsheets, presentations and the ilk -- are utilitarian, complex bundles of software. They are a necessity of modern life, used daily by individuals and businesses all over the world.

It isn't that people take them for granted. People don't consider them much at all. It has been a long time since I've had any feelings whatsoever about an office suite. There have been developments in office software that have been innovative, such as online document creation. And though useful, I still can't honestly say that I've been enthusiastic about (or, since Clippy was retired, repulsed by) any office application.

They aren't flashy. They shouldn't be, really, as it gets in the way of their primary task. That's why it seems that's 3.0 release candidate is a winner. It doesn't look radically different. Its new features are its strength, and its extensibility is its future.

This isn't to say there aren't a few user interface changes. Launching OOo3 for the first time loads (reasonably quickly, on my modestly equipped Ubuntu Hardy box) an updated welcome menu. There are two positive aspects here: first, the welcome screen is welcoming. It doesn't feel as busy as the previous launch menus. Seasoned OOo users likely bypass this menu by starting their needed application directly. New users, especially those making the exodus from other office suites, will find this a faster, but no less complete, overview of what OOo has to offer. This new user interface also calls attention to the extensibility of the suite. This menu provides direct access to new template and extension repositories.

OOo3 showcases a number of "working" improvements. It now includes a document conversion wizard that is able to convert .docx files into the OpenDocument format with varying degrees of success reported (formatting can be messy and, in this instance, macros will not be imported). The number of supported columns per spreadsheet has jumped to 1024 from the previous 256. MS Access data sources can be added to Writer documents on machines using Windows. Improvements have been made in regards to handling pie charts in Calc, and Impress and Draw allow native table creation. OOo3 officially supports 69 languages, with an additional seven supported through community-supplied language packs.

OOo3 has some promising extensions available currently, and undoubtedly more in the works. The Sun PDF Import Extension is one such example. This is a cross platform extension that can import PDF documents lacking their source files for minor editing. It is also able to export altered files into a "hybrid" PDF format -- the imported ODF file becomes a source file embedded in the exported PDF. Other OOo3/Star Office users will be able to access the ODF file, and those using other applications/viewers will see only the exported PDF. 3 is now in the first release candidate stage. Because it is still in development, it isn't recommended for production environments. The release candidate binaries and source files are available for 32- and 64-bit Linux systems, Solaris (both Sparc and x86 architectures), Windows, and Mac OS X Aqua.

It is, at the core, an office suite. It is a means to get a job done; it's a tool. The team is about to release a strong bundle of applications. It's just as important that they've focused on useful, user-oriented innovation, and only centered on interface re-design to bring those innovations to the forefront.