The first thing many people do with a new PC is not surf the Web, check e-mail, plug in a digital camera or anything else remotely fun. Instead, they install Microsoft Office.
They do that because Office's word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation file formats have become some of computing's universal languages; sharing data with somebody usually requires a copy of Office.
Home-computer manufacturers, however, almost never include Office on new machines, so buyers dissatisfied with such lesser bundleware as Microsoft Works often wind up springing for their own copy of Office. That adds at least $149 to the computer's cost -- the price for the discounted student and teacher edition of Office sold to the general public.
Although $150 is a tidy discount off the usual price of $499, it's still a lot if you'll never use most of the tools in this dense cluster of programs. So is the $100 list price of the main commercial rival to Microsoft Office, Corel WordPerfect.
Fortunately, there's another choice -- a free one, called OpenOffice.org 2.0. This open-source release doesn't do much to alleviate the complexity of office-suite software, but it has brought the cost down to a figure most people should like: nothing.
This set of programs (Win 98 or newer or Linux, free at www.openoffice.org) is built around its Writer, Calc and Impress components, counterparts to Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint. OpenOffice also throws in database, drawing and math-equation tools -- but it lacks an equivalent to Microsoft's Outlook e-mail/address book/calendar.
(If you still insist on paying, Sun Microsystems sells a version called StarOffice -- $70 as a download or $100 as a box -- that includes a printed manual and "migration tools" to convert large volumes of Office documents. Sun markets this to corporations, and the sales help underwrite development of OpenOffice.)
OpenOffice can do just about anything that Microsoft Office can at home, and with no more difficulty. But that's not enough: OpenOffice, more so than most other programs competing with what comes out of Redmond, has to live in a Microsoft world. It can't just function on its own, but it also has to read and write Microsoft's closed, proprietary formats.
That's a challenge OpenOffice can usually meet. Among dozens of Word, Excel and PowerPoint files fed to OpenOffice, most looked the same as they did in Microsoft Office, down to footnotes, custom bullet points, reviewers' comments and change-tracking marks. A few exhibited only picayune differences, such as lines of text breaking at different points.
In only two cases did OpenOffice miss or mangle any data. An embedded note in a three-year-old Word document failed to surface in Writer, and Calc drastically misinterpreted the vertical scale of the charts in a lengthy Excel spreadsheet, flattening all their trend lines.
OpenOffice isn't always as accurate at saving files in Microsoft formats, especially as they get more complicated. An invitation and a photo-gallery page looked identical in Writer and Word, but a resume laid out with multiple columns of text gained a blank line or two in the wrong places when opened in Word. Similarly, a spreadsheet estimating the costs of three wedding-reception sites looked and functioned properly in Excel -- but first I had to delete the background graphic, which had migrated to the front to hide everything else.
OpenOffice looks its weakest when it tries to produce PowerPoint documents. A slideshow that looked fine in Impress appeared jumbled in Microsoft's format -- some bullet points no longer matched, and a horizontal line at the bottom of each slide gained arrow icons at both ends, instead of just the right.
OpenOffice's own format is OpenDocument, developed by a group of companies and government bodies. (Because this format is fully documented and royalty-free, any other program can use it, but few do.) You can set OpenOffice to use either OpenDocument or Microsoft formats as its default.
Unlike Microsoft Office, however, OpenOffice can also save your work as a Portable Document Format file that preserves every pixel of your creativity -- whether it's read in Windows, on a Mac or even on a handheld organizer. This suite also makes up for some of its limited PowerPoint compatibility by allowing you to export a slideshow into a tiny Shockwave Flash file that will play in any Web browser.
But if OpenOffice succeeds by doing a good impression of Microsoft's file formats, it also fails by sticking too closely to Microsoft's horribly cluttered user interface. It offers small but worthwhile simplifications (in Writer, for instance, "Find" and "Replace" aren't separate commands under the Edit menu, and the command to paste text without any of its previous formatting has its own keyboard shortcut), but most of OpenOffice will offer no surprise to any Office veteran.
That's not meant as a compliment to the developers at Sun and elsewhere. OpenOffice's long rows of toolbar icons and lengthy, nested menus are no easier to figure out than Microsoft's. This software duplicates many of the same annoying automated-editing features that Microsoft inflicts on its users -- then adds a few of its own, such as a distracting word-completion feature. Figuring out how to deactivate them may take even more time than in Office, thanks to a nightmarishly bad Options window that lists 40 different categories of user-adjustable preferences.
With this level of complexity, you're guaranteed to hit the help file on a regular basis. But OpenOffice's help file doesn't tie into the program as cleanly as the context-sensitive system in Microsoft Office; instead of offering advice in a pane to the right of the current document, it opens in a separate window and blocks your view of your work.
As a result, users may never discover some of OpenOffice's better features. For example, where Word doesn't let you do much with a picture once you dump it onto a page, OpenOffice can apply a set of clever effects to make it look like a charcoal sketch, photo negative or bas-relief carving -- but to see those controls, you have to select the correct toolbar from the 24 available under the View menu's Toolbars item.
OpenOffice's complexity runs deep, to judge from its performance. Although it loads part of its code when Windows boots, it still took more than 15 seconds to launch on a just-started computer. Microsoft Office applications routinely jumped to life in less than three seconds on the same Dell. Fortunately, OpenOffice ran just as quickly as Microsoft on subsequent launches. It also opened and edited documents about as fast, except for a few especially large files that caused it to spin its wheels while opening.
And yet, OpenOffice is free and Microsoft is not. For many home users -- people who spend most of their time writing letters in Word and putting together the occasional simple spreadsheet, but don't want to risk not being able to read the documents people send in e-mail -- that's all they need.
The case for OpenOffice is even stronger for people running pre-2000 versions of Windows, since Microsoft Office now only runs on Win 2000 and XP. (A Mac version of OpenOffice is in development, but that effort has gotten minimal support from Sun and seems far from catching up to the new 2.0 release.)
But if you need to run Outlook or you regularly work on complicated Excel or PowerPoint files with other people, OpenOffice may not work for you -- at least for now.
Unlike Microsoft Office, OpenOffice's development isn't limited to one company's effort. Anybody can inspect and try to improve on its code -- which can explain why it's so adept at reading Microsoft files -- and if it draws more users, that pool of potential contributors will only grow deeper.
Ideally, that newfound attention can lead to OpenOffice getting the kind of disciplined, comprehensive editing that turned a powerful but complicated browser called Mozilla into the fast, simple, reliable Firefox.
But that effort can't wait too long. After years of ignoring complaints about the overgrown nature of Office's interface, Microsoft is giving its own suite a radical rewrite for next year's revision. OpenOffice could look old a year from now.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.