When you buy a computer, you pay for more than the hardware. You also pay for the operating system (probably Microsoft Windows) and application software (probably Microsoft Office). It's difficult to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations without Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to spend the extra $400 dollars on Microsoft Office? Using the OpenOffice suite, home users get comparable performance to most of the Microsoft Office products. All OpenOffice programs can read and write documents generated from Microsoft Office. And all this is free.
Included in the OpenOffice package (download it at http://www.openoffice.org), you get:
Like Microsoft Access, this is a database manager with a fully integrated database application.
Like Microsoft Excel, this is a spreadsheet program for data analysis and display.
DRAW is a layout and graphics design program for creating everything from simple pictures to involved 3D multimedia displays.
Like Microsoft PowerPoint, use this to create multimedia presentations.
This can be used as a standalone or integrated application with the other OpenOffice.org components. It's most often used as an equation editor for text documents.
Like Microsoft Word, it's a powerful word processor for creating professional documents (including Web pages). It has perks like word auto-completion: You type “thes”. WRITER will guess at what you are trying to type and prompt you with “thesaurus”. This greatly increases typing speed.
The benefits: Free quality software is always appreciated. That alone makes it worthwhile. But these tools are fully-functional, stable and support editing and reading of most Microsoft file types. In addition, all OpenOffice programs can create Adobe PDF files, a very handy feature not included with Microsoft Office. This function allows you to share your documents with any computer running any operating system.
The drawbacks: Just like any new software, there is a learning curve. Also, OpenOffice is not yet ready for a power user corporate environment: Most users can benefit, but for those who really push the limits on spreadsheet or database design, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access are the better choice.
Detailed side-by-side comparisons of OpenOffice and Microsoft Office are here and here.
Free training for OpenOffice can be found here and here.
If you have a slow Internet connection and can't wait for the download, you can order the software on CD for about five dollars.
And, in the sprit of "hope for the best but plan for the worst", here's what to do if you get a corrupted OpenOffice file.
For those of you who ask if I'll put my money where my mouth is, I'm already chewing on a bunch of loose change: I use the OpenOffice suite myself in personal and professional environments, and wrote this article using OpenOffice. I'm very happy with the results!