The Apache Software Foundation is out with a major new milestone release of the open source OpenOffice suite. The new OpenOffice 4 release marks a major new stage in the evolution of the open source project at Apache.
"This is a big update, a release nearly a year in the making," Rob Weir, Apache OpenOffice Project Management Committee, told Datamation. "The volume of changes in Apache OpenOffice, the more visible ones as well as the many improvements behind the scenes, justifies a major version increment."
One of the major new features in OpenOffice 4.0 is the sidebars capability. The general idea behind sidebars is to make it easier for users to access commonly needed tools. In a way, it's somewhat analogous what Microsoft has introduced in Office with its Ribbon approach.
"Microsoft's Ribbon and our Sidebar are both approaches to improving user productivity by making the most-commonly used settings and actions available without having to pull down a menu and enter into a dialog box," Weir said.
There is at least one major different between the Microsoft Ribbon and the OpenOffice Sidebar.
"The Sidebar, as the name indicates, is on the side of the UI, and is designed to take full advantage of the additional horizontal space available on modern wide-screen displays," Weir said. "I think that is the smarter way to go."
In addition to Sidebars, Apache OpenOffice 4.0 also improves performance, particularly in the areas of rendering drawings and bitmaps.
Typically, a major number change for an open source application also tends to indicate some degree of break with previous versions. In the case of OpenOffice 4.0, Weir noted that documents are forwards/backwards compatible with earlier versions of Apache OpenOffice and OpenOffice.org.
"However some extensions written for earlier versions may need to be updated due to API changes," Weir said. "We make such API changes only at major version increments. So extensions adapted to OpenOffice 4.0 will remain compatible for 4.1, 4.2, etc."
Oracle's OpenOffice.org effort was forked by LibreOffice in September of 2010. All of the major Linux distributions, including Red Hat, SUSE and Ubuntu, now all use LibreOffice rather than OpenOffice as their default office suite.
In recent months, LibreOffice has continued to move forward with new releases and performance related enhancements.
Weir noted that users have alternatives to Apache OpenOffice, both commercial and open source.
"Apache OpenOffice 3.4.1 and 3.4.0 before that was downloaded by over 58 million users, making it (I believe) the most popular and widely-used open source office suite available," Weir said. "If users of all office suites, including commercial ones as well as other open source ones, look around and compare the available alternatives, I think the numbers for Apache OpenOffice 4.0 will be even greater."
With OpenOffice 4.0 now available, the focus turns to what's next. Weir noted that the plan is to roll out additional language translations for OpenOffice 4.0, as they are completed over the next few weeks. The next planned version update for OpenOffice is version 4.1. Items under consideration for 4.1 include Accessibility2 support, CMIS support, patch level install support and further Microsoft Office interoperability work.
"No date has been set for 4.1, but several of us are hoping to have something by the end of the year," Weir said.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at Datamation and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.