Freeware office apps earn an update

Current users of OpenOffice.org and AbiWord know what all the fuss is about, but recent updates to both program contain feature enhancements and stability-strengthening that might attract some new converts.

For freeware productivity fans, March has ended like a lamb, not a lion. Microsoft Office replacement OpenOffice.org--download for Windows, Intel-based Macs and PowerPC-based Macs--and MS Word analogue and significantly smaller AbiWord have released updates that strengthen their functionality, expand their features, and ensure that they won't be rolling over to Web-based competitors anytime soon.

OpenOffice.org Chart now can handle equations for regression curves.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Redmond's MS Office is a behemoth of a program, but Silicon Valley-based Sun Microsystems' OpenOffice.org is hardly a lightweight. Currently, the update is only available for the Windows version of the suite, although updates for the Mac editions are expected soon.

The new features are various and numerous, but not innumerable. One of the more useful ones is that users can now create relative links in PDFs, so that users exporting lengthy PDFs can create useful jump points. They can also store a master password in the program, making it easier to access secure Web sites, and print text modified as ''hidden'' without additional formating changes.

Calc, OpenOffice's version of Excel, gets improved cut/copy/paste/insert functionality, while Writer, the Word analogue, sees the introduction of user-interfaces for custom document properties, among its other changes. The OpenOffice Web site has also seen a few tweaks, making it easier to download plugins that treat this open source suite more like Mozilla's Firefox and less like a precious bauble that needs to be locked down and admired from afar.

All in all, the update doesn't change the overall functionality of the program, but it expands on what's already there and continues to push OpenOffice as more than a mere Office copy.

AbiWord has expanded support and stability for importing document formats.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

AbiWord's update was comparable, but what struck me as most interesting was the note for a planned update in version 2.6.1 for Windows that hasn't been released yet. This plugin will allow users to work on the same document in real-time. There's some support for Unix-based versions coming from the Sugar on the One Laptop Per Child platform, but this sounds like a major add-on that will probably take time to develop and achieve stability. Still, it's good to see AbiWord trying to take on Web-based collaborative sites as well as the standard word-processing audience.

Other improvements include more support for document import and export, support for native Windows Vista menus, drag-and-drop and clipboard enhancements, and improved mechanisms for stripping the program of components that individual users deem unnecessary, such as the spell checker or printer support. This could be useful for those trying to conserve resources, although we don't have any information on how much you could expect to free up.

Until the OpenDoument format becomes the standard and replaces the bloated DOC format, the most useful improvement for average users will probably the format conversion enhancements. If you have a favorite office or productivity program, tell us about it in the comments below.

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