OpenOffice Writer

by Jean Hollis Weber

There are a number of reasons that Microsoft Office (and Word) have a monopolistic death grip on the office applications market. One definite advantage of staying with Microsoft is the huge source of third-party help in the form of books, manuals, tutorials and the like. While you may be intrigued by OpenOffice, the open-source suite of programs, at one point you would have been on your own in training yourself to use it. That’s starting to change. There's now a Dummies and a Teach Yourself book, but they normally just scratch the surface.

OpenOffice.org Writer by Jean Hollis Weber is one of the first books I’ve seen that focuses on how to use the word processing component of the free software. OpenOffice Writer probably has at least seventy five percent of the functionality of Microsoft Word, and it is the seventy-five percent that you use all the time. Although it doesn’t do everything that MS Word does, it’s a whole lot cheaper. In fact, the whole office suite is a free 65 MB download from OpenOffice.org.

The book assumes that you’ve already made the decision to switch to OpenOffice; in fact, it also assumes that you’ve got the software up and running, too. There’s no discussion of the pros and cons of the program, nor how to get it (it’s at http://download.openoffice.org/1.1.4/) or install it. It also assumes that you already know how to use a word processor. As the author states:

This book is for intermediate and advanced users of OpenOffice.org Writer. You may not have used this program before, buy you have used another word processor (such as Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect) and are familiar with the basics of word processing.

That means while OpenOffice may be ideal for the educational market because of its price, this book won’t be a good choice for teaching beginners.

What it is good for is teaching many of the advanced functions found in OpenOffice. It starts in the first chapter by diving right into some of the advanced configuration options. It may not be the smoothest way to open a book, because you’ve zoomed in on some of the leaves before you know where you are in the forest.

On the other hand, a book like this isn’t necessarily designed to be read cover to cover. Pick the topic you need to know out of the detailed Table of Contents or Index, and zoom right in on what you need to know. This book covers the following:

You can see the full index, table of contents, and a sample chapter at http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/openoffice/

The last chapter, called Moving from Microsoft Word, might be the one that should be moved to the front. Many readers would be interested in how much hassle it would be to switch, and how much interoperability there is between Word and OpenOffice Writer. It’s a good news/bad news situation:

The good news is that you can do almost anything in Writer that you can do in Microsoft Word, and a few things that you can’t do aw easily in Word. If you decide to make the change, you’ll need to learn some new ways of working, but you should be happy with the results.

The bad news is that if you need to convert existing documents from Microsoft Word to Writer, you may have to do some manual cleaning up of those files, or you may need to develop templates and macros to assist in the conversion.

My own experience is that OpenOffice is fine as long as your output is going to be shared with others either as hard copy or as PDFs. (OpenOffice can natively save to PDF files.) However, if you have to share files with Word users on a steady basis, switching is probably going to cause too many problems in exporting and importing, unless the documents are very simple.

As long as you don’t have to share, though, OpenOffice may be all you need. This book is an example of “eating your own dog food” for it was written entirely in OpenOffice.org Writer. The ample illustrations and layout of the book show what is possible with the software. At one time, the only documentation for OpenOffice was written by geeks and for geeks. This book is a definite step up.

This review is also at Blogcritics