Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
September/October 2006, by Delia Venables

Open Office - An alternative to Microsoft Office
by Neil Addison

Microsoft is one of the richest companies in the world but this is not just because of the dominance of the Windows operating system. Much of their wealth comes from sales of Microsoft Office which accounts for 30% to 40% of their profits. Probably every lawyer and law firm is has a copy of "Office" on their computer. However Office is not cheap and a full new installation can cost over £300 though upgrades are much cheaper. In addition the charge is per computer so it is a breach of licence to use the same program on more than one machine. For many smaller firms and chambers the cost of installing Microsoft Office on each of their computers is considerable but there is an alternative called Open Office which I feel lawyers should consider not just because it is free but also on its own merits.

OpenOffice.org, or OOo as it is called by its friends, can be downloaded from www.OpenOffice.org. It is an open source program prepared and developed by a collaborative team of programmers and developers. Why should they do it for free? Well, lawyers should not be too cynical about open source software; we have a proud history of "pro bono" work ourselves and open source is, in many ways, the pro bono of the computer industry.

The best known open source program is probably the Linux operating system which is rapidly moving from its Geek status to becoming a viable alternative to Windows. However for most people for whom computers are a tool and not a hobby, moving to Linux would be a daunting prospect and this has caused problems for many excellent open source programs, such as KOffice, www.koffice.org, which are only available on Linux. Fortunately, however, OOo is a cross platform open source program and can run under Windows as well as Mac and Linux.

The Open Office project was started in 2000 when Sun Microsystems released the source code of their Star Office program under an open source licence. Version 1 of Ooo was available in 2000 and went through several upgrades but even its most fervent fans had to admit that, though it was fine for most home computer work, it was possibly not quite good enough for business use and had a slightly "clunky" feel to it. In addition, there was no Open Office database available to use with it. In October 2005 however version 2 was released and after ironing out the inevitable bugs version 2.03 has emerged as a comprehensive and slick office suite which is fully able to hold its own in any competition with Microsoft Office or any other commercial office suite.

Components of the software

Open Office consists of the following components:
  • 'Writer', the word processor
  • 'Calc' a spreadsheet
  • 'Impress' a presentation program similar to PowerPoint
  • 'Base' the database program
  • 'Draw' a vector graphics editor similar to CorelDRAW
  • 'Math' a tool for creating and editing mathematical formulae, similar to Microsoft Equation Editor.

    I have not used Draw or Math but I have used all the others and I have found them every bit as good as their Microsoft Office equivalents. For all I know there may be some esoteric function in Office which is missing but frankly does anyone ever use all the functions in any computer program? Certainly I have never found any function that I use in Office which does not exist in OOo.

    Indeed, there is one feature in OOo which Office does not have, namely an "Export to PDF' function. This allows you to save a Writer, Calc or Impress document in PDF format where it can then be read by anyone with the (free) Acrobat reader. This is an extremely useful function and avoids the expense of having to purchase Adobe Acrobat itself. I have used it create a PDF version of my recent textbook "Religious Discrimination and Hatred Law" which I then put on CD for some friends and colleagues and I have also used it for creating PDF Advices and Pleadings for emailing to Courts, instructing Solicitors, opponents and so on.

    Base is a particularly useful addition to the OOo suite and is a powerful database tool which has a lot off scope for developing useful legal databases. I have used it to create a database for Precedents of advices and case law. I am not a particularly skilled programmer so I know I have only scratched the surface of Base but because it is open source it can be modified and programmed in great detail and without infringing any Microsoft patents. In my view, if a group of lawyers, or the Law Society or Bar Council, were to put their heads together and work on Open Office they could create an integrated Database and Word Processor suite precisely adapted for British lawyers and freely available for the profession. For hard pressed legal aid lawyers in particular this could be a very practical service for the professional bodies to organise and support.

    Besides being available in English and other major languages, Welsh and Gaelic versions are available at cy.openoffice.org, and ga.openoffice.org respectively.

    Other resources available

    Besides the main site, there are a number of other useful sites providing templates, advice, manuals in PDF etc.:

  • documentation.openoffice.org
  • documentation.openoffice.org/manuals/index.html
  • documentation.openoffice.org/Samples_Templates/User/template
  • ooextras.sourceforge.net
  • www.oooforum.org
  • www.ooomacros.org/user.php
  • documentation.openoffice.org/manuals/OOo2.x/user_guide2_draft.pdf

    If you have Microsoft Office on your computer and are happy with it I would not recommend changing it just for fun, but if you are thinking of buying Office for a new computer, then do try Open Office first. You will not be disappointed and the money you save can be better spent elsewhere.

    Neil Addison is a barrister at New Bailey Chambers, www.newbailey.com working in civil, criminal and employment law. He maintains two important web sites: www.religionlaw.co.uk and www.harassmentlaw.co.uk.

    Email: email@neiladdison.com.

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