washingtonpost.com
OpenOffice.org

Robin Miller
Author
Friday, December 16, 2005 12:00 PM

Author Robin Miller was online Friday, Dec. 16th to discuss the OpenOffice.org suite of office productivity software and his new book "Point and Click: OpenOffice.org."

Miller introduces readers to OpenOffice.org 2.0, an alternative to Microsoft Office's perceived hassles, upgrades and cost. OpenOffice.org 2.0 runs through Windows or Linux and offers word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawing and databases. What's more, it's free. In his new book, Miller provides software and instruction for the basics of OpenOffice.org, as well as Firefox and Thunderbird.

Robin 'Roblimo' Miller is editor in chief for Open Source Technology Group (OSTG). He has written extensively about computers and the Internet for OSTG's sites as well as for Time New Media, Online Journalism Review and the Washington Post, among other sites and publications. He is the author of "The Online Rules of Successful Companies," and "Point and Click: Linux."

A transcript of the discussion follows.

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Robin Miller: Aloha from Florida.

I'm Robin Miller, better known as 'Roblimo' to Slashdot readers and other Internet junkies. My mission today is to blatantly promote my latest book, 'Point & Click OpenOffice.org!' from Prentice Hall, available through virtually every English-language bookseller on this planet.

I wrote this book for ordinary people -- people like me and my Florida neighbors -- instead of for geeky computer experts. It's an easy-to-digest introduction to the free OpenOffice.org office suite, which is in some ways not quite as good as Microsoft Office and in many ways is better.

OpenOffice.org (which I'll call OOo from now on) is free. It's also easy to use even if you've never used full-strength office software before. You know all those ads you see where it says, "Must submit resume (or manuscript or whatever) in Microsoft .doc format?" OOo lets you do that *without* spending money to buy Microsoft Office. It also has a pretty good drawing and image processing utility built in, which MS Office doesn't. Not shabby considering the price, eh? :)

As far as my book: It includes Windows and Linux versions of OOo, and tells you where to download the Mac version. After that, you'll find plenty of pictures that make learning easy. PLUS, in the back of the book there's a CD with about 75 minute worth of videos that will step you through most common OOo actions, one at a time.

The individual videos are between two and seven minutes long. You can pause or rewind them as often as you like to make sure you understand the functions they teach. The text book shares this feature; you can turn the pages not only forward but also backwards to make sure you understand everything. Amazing! :)

I'm being silly here because too many software training books and videos are serious-boring. I think it's easier to learn when you have a little fun along the way. I don't write for geeks, as I said earlier, but I don't write for dummies, either. I write for normal people who aren't obsessed by computers but want to use them as tools and need to learn how to do that as painlessly as possible.

Hmmm.... I see a hand up in the back of the room. You have a question? Good. It's obviously time for me to stop yammering and get to answering....

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Aptos, Calif.: Can you save files in Microsoft office formats?

Robin Miller: I sure can. And I can work with the "display changes" feature so many people claim is the main reason they like MS Office.

Prentice Hall, my publisher, uses MS Office. I use OOo. This book's very existence is proof that OOo can save in MS Office formats.

Sadly, MS Office can't deal with the free and open file formats OOo uses. I guess this makes OOo the winner!

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Thurmont, Md.: What are your predictictions regarding the involvement of Google with OpenOffice?

Robin Miller: I'm working on a story about that. Check NewsForge.com after the first of the year to read it. There's a major missing ingredient needed to make Net-based applications as useful as ones that run on your own computer. I *think* I've found it, but need to do a little more research before I talk about it in public.

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Bowie, Md.: 1. Is your book a "how to use OpenOffice" instruction manual or more of a social, political, economic commentary on the role of Open Source and Microsoft in our society?

2. What do you think of the $100 laptop?

Robin Miller: 1) It's a practical manual for people who need to get things done, not a political commentary.

2) The $100 laptop is a great idea. I suspect they'll really end up costing more like $200, but that's still good. I've traveled to plenty of places in the world where one cheap battery-powered computer in a village would be better than what they have now -- namely, nothing.

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Orlando, Fla.: I have sent email attachments generated in WRITER and have been told that the receiver has not been able to open them in WORD. Why?

I have had to resort to copy and paste into the email body to transmit the info.

Robin Miller: You need to save those texts in .doc format, not in the native OOo .odt format. Sadly, Microsoft Word won't read .odt even though it's a free, open industry standard. But no big deal. OOo can save in many formats, including MS ones new and old.

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New York, N.Y.: OpenOffice seems good at copying features from Office, but are there any design/feature directions in the works that will move the productivity suite in new directions?

Robin Miller: Like for instance built-in graphics (image)processing? Already there. The ability to save in PDF? Already there. Support for multiple databases? Already there. Support for all kinds of languages MS Office doesn't support? Already there.

And remember, since OOo is open source, you or anyone else can jump onto the developers' email list and request features directly instead of hoping your feedback trickles through a marketing department to the people doing the actual programming. Or you can make add-on programs that do things the basic OOo package won't.

If you and enough other people can convince programmers working on OOo -- or you're willing to contribute your own programming talent -- you can have any feature you want. :)

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Tampa, Fla.: What's the difference between OpenOffice for Mac OS 10 and NeoOffice for Mac? I don't understand what NeoOffice means when it says NeoOffice was engineered to "run natively" on Mac OS 10. Also, what is X11 for Mac? The OpenOffice website seems to say I need this to download OpenOffice for my Mac (OS 10.4.3).

Robin Miller: X11 is a utiltiy that lets you run most BSD (Unix) and Linux programs on a Mac. A Google search will teach you more about it.

I strongly recommend NeoOffice over OOo + X11. NeoOffice development lags a little behind OOo development, but it's more "Mac native" in appearance and has the same features.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there any open-source office suites that work on a Mac?

Thanks!

Robin Miller: Just answered this. Thanks for asking!

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Rockville, Md.: I am surprised that Word has so little support for scanners. Since Acrobat has so much support and the PDF format is open, why don't we see more in this direction with OCR and the rest of the document control features that could be there?

Robin Miller: I have no insight into how Microsoft makes decisions. I use Linux and OOo myself, not Microsoft products, and my old Microtek scanner works just fine.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: Is Open Office usable for people with disabilities, i.e. vision impairments, voice commands, etc.? Does it comply with 508 standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act? Thanks.

Robin Miller: There is currently *limited* support for people with disabilities. Remember, most AT (Assistive Technology) support comes from 3rd party applications and isn't directly built into the "main" application.

OOo is open source, so you can add your own AT or talk to your favorite AT provider about working with OOo. I am not an expert in this area. Learn more here: http://ui.openoffice.org/accessibility/at-support.html

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Does Open Office Org. have any plans to create a mail client, like Microsoft Outlook?

Robin Miller: There's a wonderful open source email client called Mozilla Thunderbird already. If you set Thunderbird as your default email client OOo will automatically use it.

(PLUG ALERT) My book includes chapters on Mozilla Firefox (Web browser) and Thunderbird (email). I love Thunderbird to death and use it not only in Linux but on the rare occaissions I connect my one Windows "test" computer to the Internet.

And if you're locked into Outlook or Outlook Express for some reason, OOo will use *it* as the email client, no problem.

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Laurel, Md.: When shopping for a Windows PC, what are the spec requirements if you intend to run OO and Firefox? Anything that you need to avoid or features normally associated with a Windows machine that won't be usable?

Robin Miller: Nothing special. And the only Windows features that won't be usable in Firefox and Thunderbird (the Mozilla email client) are viruses or worms that attack Explorer and Outlook vulnerabilities.

One thing I suggest when shopping for any computer these days is to get (or add) plenty of RAM to it. This is basic advice no matter what software you run on it.

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Boston, Mass.: There was a big dispute up here when the state announced it would shift to using the OpenDocument Format, which would exclude MS products, since they cannot save in the OpenDocument Format. MS just announced the next Office release would support Open XML. Does Open Office support Open XML? Any thoughts on why MS would take this tack rather than making Office compatible with the OpenDocument Format?

Robin Miller: Microsoft is working hard to hold on to what they have regarded as their exclusive territory up 'til now. Office is their biggest cash cow, and there is no way they are going to let it wither away.

There is no *technical* reason Microsoft can't support the opendocument format.

And yes, OOo can/will support XML. The problem with Microsoft's XML is that they'll probably change the "standard" at some point. Remember what they did to Kerberos? :)

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Annandale, Va.: I think the problem I have with MicroSoft is their forced approach to their software. Take Internet Explorer for example: it is included in every MS OS system and they do not give you an option to uninstall it. That would be like Honda supplying stock radios in all their cars, but you cannot change Preset Station #1... ever.

Robin Miller: I personally have no problem with Microsoft.

Of course, that's probably because I don't depend on any of their software these days.

Back when I did use their products, I didn't like the company very much.:)

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McLean, Va.: I know this has nothing to do with you but the name "OpenOffice.org" is stupid. Why is the .org on it? "oppenoffice.org" is a WEB SITE. "Open Office is a product suite. It should just be "Open Office". I hate it when companies name themselves after their website.

Robin Miller: I agree. It's a stupid name. The original plan was for it to be OpenOffice, but then it turned out someone else already was using that name and had it trademarked.

Could they have come up with a better name? No doubt. *I* could have. I'll bet you could have, too. But (sigh) they didn't ask us.

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Santa Cruz, Calif.: Is there any connection between Open Office and Sun Microsystems' product, Star Office? Star Office attempted to do something similar, though the functionality and stability were arguably shaky. This was 4-5 years ago...

Robin Miller: Sun Microsystems bought StarOffice and put out a free, open source version called (yes, we all agree it's a dumb name) OpenOffice.org.

Sun still sells StarOffice, which is now OpenOffice with some added features plus formal, corporate-level support from Sun.

If you need that level of support along with a whole bunch of document templates and some very cool tools that will help you migrate all your company's documents from MS formats to real open ones, you should look into StarOffice. It is *way* cheaper than MS Office.

(No, Sun isn't paying me to say this. I don't even think Sun likes me - Their CEO keeps turning down my Slashdot interview requests.)

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Gainesville, Fla.: Could OOo programs have the same functionality than MSO and generate stand alone files (the biggest weakness ok MSO)?

Robin Miller: I'm not sure I understand this, but if you're talking about including forms and such, yes. There's a StarBasic utility that will do that. There's also some tools in (commercial but low-cost) StarOffice that will help you migrate your MS O basic functions to SO/OOo.

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Bowie, Md.: I think I once got something called "Ability Office." What was that and what happened to it?

Robin Miller: It's still around - ttp://www.ability.com/.

I've never tried it, and nowadays I run Linux and most of the software I run is free/open source. Maybe one day I'll crank up the Windows computer and give this a try, write a review of it.

Thanks for the tip!

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Frederick, Md.: Is there any chance we might see a celebrity, such as Jeff Gordon, endorsing openoffice?

Robin Miller: You mean I'm not enough of a celebrity for you? :)

Leo Laporte is a sure-enough (geek) celeb, and *he* endorses OOo. Heck, he wrote the foreword to my last book, Point & Click Linux, and Jeff Gordon didn't even offer.

Remember: Free/Open Source Software doesn't have marketing budgets to buy celeb endorsements. People who tell you it's good truly like it....

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washingtonpost.com: Ability.com

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Bowie, Md.: For several years, I and my wife used WordPerfect at home because it was bundled as a resonably-priced add on when we bought that computer.

Then she went to a new workplace and suddenly she started buggin me about "upgrading" to Microsoft Office. I asked her to stop talking in oxymorons.

The point is -- how to convince the MS-devotees in your home that OO is as good?

Robin Miller: Just install it and let her use it. That's what I would do.

You might also tell your wife that if you start using free software instead of proprietary programs, you can eventually save enough money to buy a sailboat (or some other luxury item).

I calculated my free software saving in late 2003 and Lo! I really had saved enough money to buy a sailboat -- a brand-new West Wight Potter including motor and trailer.

It's a great little boat that gives me more satisfaction than I ever would have gotten from supporting Microsoft and other software publishers. :)

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Kyle, Tex.: Does OpenOffice.org run on Windows, too? Or just on Linux?

Robin Miller: Runs in Windows just fine. In fact, most of the instructions in my Point & Click OpenOffice.org book are for Windows users.

There's even a Windows version included free on a CD in the back of the book!

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washingtonpost.com: Roblimo.com

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Robin Miller: Thanks for all the great questions. These Post chats are great fun -- and a great way to practice high- speed typing!

Keep an eye on my personal site, roblimo.com. Starting in January I'll be posting additional videos there, including updates to last year's "Point and Click Linux' and ones that go deeper into OOo.

Beyond that, I'm making new videos that will help you learn to use other exciting free and open source software packages. I believe one of the big reasons people hesitate to try unfamiliar software is a lack of good training resources.

I'm doing my best to overcome this problem. Check not only my personal site but also Linux.com and NewsForge.com for plenty of documentations that will help you get started with Linux and other free software.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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