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OpenOffice, and HTML and Office compatibility

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 15, 2006
(Issue 2437, Digital Deception)

It has long been a dream for those of us who work as writers and editors in the online realm: One program that lets us write our stories for both print and online use.

Microsoft Office may be the de facto standard for business use, but it's a couple steps below useless when it comes to generating Web documents.

WordPerfect does a great job of offering an affordable alternative to Microsoft Office (and does a near-perfect job of rendering even complex Office documents), and does a decent job of converting those documents to simple Web pages. But even WordPerfect wouldn't be anyone's first choice of an HTML editor: It simply isn't set up to handle stuff like tables, stylesheets, inline graphics, image maps or anything other than the most basic HTML elements.

For HTML, most folks use DreamWorks (or the stripped-down version, HomeSite), or other HTML editor like Microsoft FrontPage or Adobe GoLive.

But those programs aren't much good for creating business documents for real-world use.

So while our daily reality is that the online world and the physical world are becoming more and more intertwined, our computer reality is that most folks who work with any kind of documents need two different editors: a word processor and an HTML/Web editor.

Bridging the gap

OpenOffice 2.0, out almost a year now, is a free, open-source alternative to Microsoft Office and/or WordPerfect. (It's also available for Mac OSX, Linux and Solaris.)

A free download from, OpenOffice can also be purchased on CD-ROM, with or without a printed manual, for $13-$35, roughly, depending on what all you want.

Still, if you have a high-speed connection, the free download is the way to go. (And if you're preparing documents for the Web on a regular basis, you've probably got a high-speed connection.)

The one challenge is OpenOffice isn't available as a standard HTML or ftp download; you need to use a P2P (peer to peer) client. On the up side, the OpenOffice downloads page contains links to various P2P clients. (I used BitTorrent with no problems.)

Once it's downloaded and installed, OpenOffice is immediately intuitive in its layout and menus. It opens both Word and WordPerfect files (along with Excel, Quattro Pro, PowerPoint and other formats), and displays even fairly complex documents with pretty consistent results.

But what makes OpenOffice stand apart is the way it handles editing HTML files.

The menu/display design is an easy to use cross between Word/WordPerfect and Dreamweaver.

For standard office documents (it works native in the open-source OpenOffice format), OpenOffice features a nice, WYSIWYG environment that looks, feels and works pretty much like Word or WordPerfect.

But if you're working on Web stuff, you can switch gears – a la Dreamweaver – and view HTML code or work in WYSIWYG.

Best of all, the code you end up with is remarkably clean – almost as clean as that in Dreamweaver. And it's certainly cleaner than the code you get from saving documents into HTML in Word (atrocious!) or WordPerfect (somewhat better).

Now, while OpenOffice has functionality for complex HTML like frames and embedded objects, I didn't get that far.

And it seems unlikely that it's going to be as solid as Dreamweaver or HomeSite.

But neither Dreamweaver or Homesite can open Word or WordPerfect documents.

In conclusion

OpenOffice is the most solid all-in-one word processor/HTML editor I've yet encountered. It's not as good as Dreamweaver for HTML, nor as good as WordPerfect at general word processing.

But it's more than good enough on both ends to make it the best dual-edged editor on the market.

If you need full Microsoft Office compatibility, OpenOffice 2.0 probably won't solve all your needs. As mentioned, it can be a bit iffy on complex documents, and I wouldn't wager it's ability to open and save to Office formats on spreadsheets, databases or presentations, either. (Even the better-established WordPerfect has problems with complex Office documents.)

And while OpenOffice can open WordPerfect documents just fine, it won't save to WordPerfect.

For those who aren't tied to any existing file format, who simply need a general purpose word processor that can at least save to the industry standard ASCII or Rich Text Format files, OpenOffice 2.0 may be for you.