Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers

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Most of the work being done with LibreOffice right now seems incremental rather than revolutionary: a different set of icons, a few tweaks to the display. The under-the-hood changes that make the most outward difference are various performance improvements, originally devised for the Go-OO spinoff of OpenOffice.org (work on which has since been discontinued in favor of LibreOffice). No performance testing is needed to prove this; on the same hardware, LibreOffice does indeed launch and open documents noticeably faster than OpenOffice.org.

Other improvements also show themselves with a little hands-on usage. Spreadsheets in LibreOffice can now handle up to 1 million rows, versus 65,536 rows in OpenOffice.org -- handy if you're used to using Excel as an impromptu browser for database dumps. The LibreOffice suite has noticeably better handling of WordPerfect documents and includes import filters for SVG, Lotus Word Pro, and Microsoft Works files. These may seem like minor points to boast about, but they're useful to an organization that has a lot of legacy documents and wants to be able to read them accurately.

One notable change: In the Windows edition, help documents for the suite are now provided by default through the LibreOffice online wiki, rather than a local help file. This is dependent on the presence of an Internet connection; if you don't have one, pressing F1 causes a browser to launch and generate an error page. The local help file can be downloaded and added separately, though, if you plan on needing help when offline.

If you're an IT admin -- or just curious -- you can enable an "experimental mode" within LibreOffice that turns on features designated as unstable in the current version. Right now there are few features exposed through this function; the most notable is an interactive in-document formula editor.

Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0Don't let the name fool you. IBM's Lotus Symphony suite has almost nothing to do with the earlier incarnations of the Lotus Symphony suite -- it's now a rebranded spin-off of OpenOffice.org, with a heavily reworked interface courtesy of IBM's programmers. It also features only three applications from the OpenOffice.org suite, but they're the ones that matter: word processor, spreadsheet, and presentations.

Launch Symphony and you'd scarcely know you were dealing with anything derived from OpenOffice.org at all. The look of the program is markedly different and, in my opinion, substantially more attractive. Open a word processing document, for instance, and you'll see a familiar toolbar along the top, but also a set of slide-out panels to the right of the text area: text properties, a document explorer/organizer, clip art, text styles, and a Widgets window. Also, multiple documents opened within Symphony are now organized as tabs within a single window by default, although you can undock them into their own window by right-clicking the relevant tab and selecting "Open in new window."

The Widgets panel lets you add various Internet-based services -- Google Gadgets or other Web pages -- into that window for reference or access to online applications. The usefulness of this feature is a little unclear, but it seems like it's being positioned as an open-ended version of the reference panel that's used in Word for translations, word definitions, and more.

One omission that would have been handy is support for the enhanced right-click context menu available through the Windows 7 Taskbar and Start menu. This typically provides access to recently used documents or common program functions. OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice don't have this either, but IBM could have easily added this extra bit of system integration while it was redesigning the rest of the program's look.

While Symphony may look different, most of its features (apart from obviously new things like the Widgets panel) and their behavior are almost identical to the OpenOffice.org counterparts. Anyone who has cut his or her teeth on the former program shouldn't have trouble figuring out how Symphony works. Most of the menus sport the same option sets, and utilities like the Template Organizer behave the same way.

Many of the new features that have come to Symphony 3.0 are courtesy of the new OpenOffice.org code base -- such as support for Microsoft Office VBA macros, or the Detective (dependency and debug tracer) for spreadsheet equations. Symphony can open most Office 2007 documents -- although you get a warning that some documents may not render with total fidelity. A number of files I tried, like the mortgage calculator spreadsheet I tested with OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice, opened but had the same issues as with those two programs. Password-protected Word and Excel files can also be opened, but only if they're saved in the Office 97-2003 binary format; password-protected Office 2007 XML-format files can't be opened.

The relatively stripped-down focus of Symphony means some features found in OpenOffice.org proper aren't found here. WordPerfect users looking to open their documents in Symphony are likely to be let down; support for WordPerfect documents is not included and is not available through the plug-in directory either. Format conversion also doesn't seem as well-supported in Symphony as it does in OpenOffice.org. When I couldn't open an .html document, I looked for a plug-in to allow that. The closest I could find was an output filter that saves ODF as a .html document and a plug-in that converts .html files to ODF spreadsheets (not text documents), but no import filter. To that end, those already using ODF as their standard document format will find Symphony a lot more accommodating.

Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: SoftMaker Office 2010For several years now, SoftMaker Office has been accruing a reputation as a low-cost replacement for the Microsoft Office product line. It's indeed much cheaper than Office 2010: $79 to Office's $149, $279, or $499 (the MSRPs for the Home and Student, Home and Business, and Professional versions, respectively). For those who don't exclusively require Word, it's a very strong contender. It's also been written with much more of an eye toward integration with Windows than the OpenOffice.org family; for example, the Windows 7 Taskbar jump lists are supported.

The suite features replacements for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in much the same way that IBM Lotus Symphony strips the OpenOffice.org suite down to its three most essential programs. A single copy of the program can be used on up to three PCs, with no copy protection or other restrictions. Academic pricing ($34.95 per copy) is also available, but there's no need to purchase different versions of the program for work and home.

The best way to see SoftMaker Office's much-vaunted document compatibility in action is to grab the 30-day trial version of the product, open documents in it side-by-side with your existing program, and see how they look. SoftMaker Office has its own native document formats for each program, but it does a strikingly sound job of reading and interpreting Office's native formats. It can also handle some of the OpenDocument formats used by OpenOffice.org.

TextMaker, SoftMaker's word processor, is the most likely place to start testing how well the suite works with your existing files. With most every document I threw at it from my own collection, everything from relatively complex style-driven formatting to annotations and corrections was preserved. The programmers also took the trouble to make many individual features behave like their counterparts in Microsoft Office, such as the way corrections can be viewed in a callout pane to the side of the text. OpenOffice.org and its derivatives do the same thing, but often lose the name of whoever submitted a given correction. TextMaker preserved the names properly (as did Symphony's word processor). Details like this position TextMaker as that much more attractive to users who care about preserving document fidelity.

PlanMaker, the suite's spreadsheet program, supports up to 65,536 rows and works with both older and newer Excel documents. It opened existing spreadsheets better than any of the OpenOffice.org variants, but I still ran into some hitches. When I opened the mortgage calculator spreadsheet, it displayed the charts properly but didn't recalculate the charts when I changed the data. Even forcing a recalculation of the charts from the program menu didn't work. Also, PlanMaker doesn't open OpenDocument-format spreadsheets (.ods), though TextMaker opens word processing documents in the OpenDocument format (.odt).

SoftMaker Presentations had some similar file format hitches. PowerPoint 2007/2010 presentations (.pptx) are not yet supported, and neither are OpenDocument presentation files (.odp), but files in the older PowerPoint (.ppt) format load and run very well. In-slide animation and transitions also work. One key omission from Presentations is the lack of a feature like PowerPoint's synchronized multiscreen presentation mode. This allows a presenter to run the presentation on one display, such as a projector, while having his notes for the presentation visible on his notebook display. With Presentations, it is possible to run the slideshow on one display while manually browsing the notes for the presentation on another, but it's not quite the same.

All SoftMaker Office applications use a scripting language that's based on Microsoft's own VBA for application automation, and the suite includes an editor (BasicMaker) for creating and debugging scripts. Note that while SoftMaker's scripting language is similar to VBA, this doesn't mean existing Office documents with VBA automation can be used as-is. You'd have to export the code from those documents, reimport it into BasicMaker, and then modify it line by line. I did like the program's PDF exporter, which is on a par with OpenOffice.org's excellent tool.

Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: Corel WordPerfect Office X5There was a time, in the DOS days, when WordPerfect was for many professionals the word processing program. Law offices still swear by it, since it's heavily backward compatible with previous versions and has features that appeal to legal professionals.

WordPerfect has since been made part of a suite that contains the Quattro Pro spreadsheet (originally from Borland) and Corel's own Presentations application. The newest version of the suite, WordPerfect Office X5 (or version 15), was released in 2010, and has little to attract users from other suites. It's slightly less expensive than Office 2010 -- the home version is $99 and runs on up to three PCs -- but SoftMaker Office and the various OpenOffice.org derivatives all offer more.

When you launch WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, or Presentations, the first thing you see is the Workspace Manager -- a way to automatically set the program's look and the menu options to one of a number of included templates depending on the user's preferences. Aside from the standard WordPerfect mode, there's Microsoft Word mode, which includes a toolbar of document compatibility options and a sidebar that gives you quick access to common document functions; WordPerfect Classic mode, which emulates the white-on-blue look of the old DOS-era WordPerfect and even the macros of same; and WordPerfect Legal mode, which brings up toolbars related to legal documents.

If you open anything other than native WordPerfect documents, the program runs a conversion filter first, a process that can take anywhere from a fraction of a second to a minute or two depending on the file size and source format. The conversion process for OpenDocument word processing (.odt) documents, even small ones, is much slower than for Word files (.doc or .docx), and as with the other programs here the level of fidelity for document conversion will vary widely. For instance, inline comments from both Word and .odt documents were preserved, but any information about who had made specific comments didn't seem to survive the conversion.

The mortgage calculator spreadsheet loaded in Quattro, but just barely. The charts didn't display any values, and the sheet itself lost most of its functionality; most of the cell formulas didn't work. While I was able to get an existing PowerPoint presentation to import, the transitions were all replaced with simple wipes and many presentation details (such as the aspect ratios of slides) didn't translate accurately. That's where file format support ends -- WordPerfect Office can't open spreadsheets or presentations in Office 2007/2010 or OpenDocument formats.

Most of what drew people to WordPerfect in the first place has been aggressively preserved across the many versions of the program. Take the way WordPerfect deals with document formatting: The user can inspect the formatting markup for a document in great detail and edit it directly. It's a great feature.

But the general stagnancy of the program is off-putting, like the fact that WordPerfect still doesn't support Unicode after all this time. Open a document with both Western and non-Western text and you don't even see gibberish -- non-Western text simply doesn't display. For this and many other reasons, WordPerfect Office X5 is unlikely to appeal beyond WordPerfect's existing user base.

Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: Google DocsIt may seem odd to include a SaaS offering in this mix, but SaaS applications have been repeatedly positioned as challengers to desktop applications, and Google Docs is one of the most visible incarnations of same. It's improved enormously since its original incarnations, but I'm still skeptical of using it for anything more than fairly rudimentary work. The feature set is extremely basic, and the limitations of what can be accomplished within a Web browser hinder you all the more.

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