One of the first things that users look around for when they install an operating system is its office suite – a collective term used for software like word processors, spreadsheet processors, presentation creators, etc. Windows users need to buy and install an office suite is one of the first tasks they have, because Windows itself doesn't come bundled with any. Buying an office suite like the ubiquitous Microsoft Office can be quite expensive for students and / or educational institutions. Isn't there any open source alternative to this? Yes, and it's called OpenOffice.org (or, OOo in short). The reason why it is not called 'just OpenOffice' is because of some trademark issues. Nevertheless, despite its name, OpenOffice.org is a fully-fledged desktop software. It has everything that Microsoft's office suite does – including a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation editor, math formula editor, database program and a drawing software. All this, for free. Doesn't take much to think why you shouldn't use it.
Just in case you were wondering, OpenOffice.org supports documents formats that MS Office uses; which means that you can open and edit .DOC, .PPT, .XLS files with ease. OOo even supports the newer MS Office 2007 OOXML format files – the ones with the extensions like .DOCX, .PPTX, and .XLSX. That's not only it, OOo even supports other formats like those of WordPerfect, etc. Compatibility therefore, is not an issue if you are thinking of switching over.
We have a confession to make though – we admit that OpenOffice.org could have been better. Although its interface almost a clone of MS Office 2003, and has every option that has and more – it is no match for the newer MS Office 2007. There is an answer in the offing, and that happens to be Lotus Symphony. This takes its base from OpenOffice.org, and takes it miles ahead; though is still in beta stage, meaning that it is in testing. Still, it has already wowed us with its capabilities. Right now, Lotus Symphony is NOT fully open source, because it is based on the OpenOffice.org version 1.x code base – which wasn't fully open source itself. The Lotus Symphony team however, planned to move its way up working from the earlier versions, to a version of Lotus Symphony based on the open source OpenOffice.org version 2.x code base.
So why exactly are we raving about Lotus Symphony? Interface, for one; as it is far more polished that OpenOffice.org's. The other killer feature in this is tabbed document editing, which we simply love. That means, you no longer have to keep multiple windows open when editing more than one document – by default (you can detach it to a separate window), everything shows up in tabs in ONE window, making your taskbar less cluttered. It's not just documents of the same type that can be opened in tabs; you could have a spreadsheet in one tab, and a presentation in another. The other neat feature it has is a contextual operation sidebar; a static toolbar is there at the top, but there's a sidebar on the right which keeps changing depending upon what operation you can do on the document then.
Lotus Symphony is still in testing stage, so there might be bugs in it, or it might crash. We don't recommend this for a production environment. A proper release is expected around the last quarter of 2008, and when it does come out, it is going to be a giant step forward for office suites.
In the following tutorial on OpenOffice.org, we are not going to teach the user about how to use an office suite – because such an effort would be worthy of a separate site of its own. We expect the reader is already familiar with some form of the major office suites used; if not, we urge the reader to refer to the extensive OpenOffice.org documentation. What we will aim to do instead is to point out some of its unique features, and a few handy tips and tricks.