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The open source community has taken a further step towards unseating Microsoft's Office productivity hegemony, with the release of its latest suite.

OpenOffice 2.0 has been released featuring a new interface and a standards-based XML architecture intended to tempt even more governments, companies and individuals to convert from Office.

OpenOffice 2.0 uses OpenDocument Format, from the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), as its default file format to improve the exchange of text, spreadsheets, charts and graphical documents between suites.

OpenDocument Format is used in Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 8.0 and the KOffice suite and is supported by the European Union and the US Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So far, Microsoft does not plan to support OpenDocument Format in the up-coming Office 12 suite, expected next year.

Two big changes to OpenOffice 2.0 include the simplified creation and management of both web forms and cross-platform database applications.

OpenOffice 2.0 uses XForms, from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to create web forms, instead of using the traditional approach of HTML. Web forms are easier to create using XForms because they separate the design of a web form from its logic.

The suite also introduces the BASE database module, which allows users to create and modify tables, forms queries and reports, and to store information in XML. BASE uses wizards, design views and SQL Views for users with different levels of skills. Database tools are also now easier to access, through the "file - new" menu.

Other improvements have been made at the interface level and are geared towards weaning end-users off of Microsoft's Office. These include a multi-pane view of different tools, custom shapes that are similar to Microsoft's AutoShapes, a mail merge wizard, enhanced word count and calculator.

OpenOffice said on its web site that: "OpenOffice 2.0 provides a number of productivity enhancements and is designed to assist in the transition from proprietary office suites, while letting new and existing users take advantage from a brand new, appealing, functional and easy-to-use interface."

Microsoft is unlikely to lose too much sleep over OpenOffice 2.0 at this stage. OpenOffice has taken five years to offer the kind of features and functionality that Microsoft and users of Office have taken for granted for sometime.

Furthermore, Microsoft not only has an immense presence on the world's PCs, but it is preparing to consolidate that hold with planned architectural changes that should help maintain sufficient blue water between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice on a feature/functionality basis. Office is being integrated with Microsoft's servers to provide more of a front end to data on back-end servers.

Microsoft could also potentially squash OpenOffice's "unique selling point" of standards-based XML support, should it decide to endorse the OpenDocument Format instead of its own, dubious Office 12 XML file formats.

To continue its early momentum, OpenOffice must rely on a combination of Microsoft inertia in standards combined with sustained support for these standards, like OpenDocument, by large government organizations. This could help OpenOffice really take a bite out of Microsoft's business over time.

There is also another factor critical to OpenOffice 2.0 going forward - price. OpenOffice is free for download while suites that implement OpenOffice, like Sun's StarOffice, drastically undercut Microsoft. Microsoft, meanwhile, has promised to squeeze customers further with planned "premium" editions of Office in the pipeline.

Expect Microsoft to continue to lead on functionality with the real battle for market share between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice being fought on price and standards.®

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