Industry experts who have taken a look at the OpenOffice.org 2.0 said new database functionality included with the open source personal productivity suite will go a long way toward making the system a viable alternative to Microsoft Office -- especially in the all important small and medium-sized business (SMB) market.
OpenOffice 2.0, which is still in the beta testing phase, includes a new database creation application called Base that is similar to Microsoft Access and rounds out an offering that already includes alternatives to Microsoft's Excel, PowerPoint and Paint applications. Base allows users to create standalone databases and related data entry forms and reports.
Analysts said the new Base functionality and OpenOffice 2.0's improved ease of use should help the system gain acceptance with smaller companies, the vast majority of which use Microsoft Office.
"The database capabilities will be interesting because ultimately OpenOffice wants to provide an end-to-end alternative to everything that you get in Microsoft Office," said Tony Iams, a senior analyst with Ideas International, in Port Chester, N.Y. "The database offering in OpenOffice is going to reduce one of the barriers to its adoption in SMB environments."
Iams said there is an increasing level of SMB interest in switching from Microsoft Office to open source alternatives that is being driven chiefly by negative perceptions about Microsoft's pricing and licensing policies.
That said, Iams pointed out that OpenOffice 2.0 has the greatest chance of being adopted by smaller organizations that are either newly formed or that don't already have a large investment in Microsoft applications.
"Microsoft, of course, feels very strongly that the value of their product justifies the cost," Iams said. "But for users that don't necessarily need all of the functions of Microsoft Office, they might be interested in something that is free."
The database functionality included with OpenOffice 2.0 should also help bolster its level of acceptance with not-for-profit organizations, said Sam Hiser, co-founder of New York-based consulting firm Hiser + Adelstein and the co-author of Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop.
"Not-for profits are dependent on their mailing label functionality and on their ability to organize data for their constituents and their donors," Hiser said. "The new database functionality in OpenOffice 2 is going to address those needs very directly."
Not-for-profits don't sound like mainstream corporate America, but Hiser, said they are a significant rung on the ladder to mainstream acceptance.
"You're going to see OpenOffice 2 adoption moving well up the curve," Hiser said. "It's going to move out of the early adopter sectors and into the mainstream much more aggressively because the objections have been removed."
All-around database improvements
The normally conservative OpenOffice developers made some very significant changes to the suite's database functionality that go beyond the addition of Base.
For one, Hiser explained, the OpenOffice 2 includes greatly improved Data Sources functionality. Data Sources allows users to connect to large commercial databases and extract information. Previous versions of OpenOffice lacked the front-end functionality that made linking to those databases effective and useful.
OpenOffice developers have also made improvements to the system's forms module, which allows developers to create templates for entering data into a database.
"Now, not only do you have the old Data Sources -- the ability to connect to a MySQL or a PostgreSQL or a DB2 database -- but you also have the ability to create database files and use the OpenOffice suite as a front end for designing databases," Hiser said.
Hiser said the beta version of OpenOffice 2.0 doesn't exactly run smooth. But apparently that's a good thing.
"It's rough around the edges and that's a good sign, because it reflects how much of it they worked on it," he said. "They did a lot."