Captain Spreadsheet

For years now, ever since I took Edward Tufte's very excellent one-day course on the graphic presentation of quantitative information, I've been a bit obsessed with presenting data in a way that tells a story. This has meant that everyone who has worked with me has had to endure reams of reports, dashboards, and burn-down charts replete with both shapes and colors.

Amongst my closest friends, this obsession has earned me the nick-name "Captain Spreadsheet".

I'm sure they mean it in the nicest way.

To them I say: Today, Captain Spreadsheet tried on a new cape. He quite likes it.

That new cape is StarOffice Calc.

I recently set up a new computer, and opted not to give Microsoft the $300 to $400 it costs to purchase a legally licensed instance of their nearly omni-present MS Office productivity suite.

Instead, I downloaded and installed some free software from Google. Their "pack" essential software suite includes an awesome array of tools, including:
  • Google Earth
  • Google Desktop Search
  • Firefox (the best browser currently on the planet, now that Netscape is no more...)
  • Adobe Reader
  • Real Player
  • Picasa2
  • and most notably, StarOffice 8
It is Star Office 8 that I tried on for size this week. It includes a text editor (StarOffice Writer), a database (StarOffice Base), a drawing program (StarOffice Draw), a presentation tool (StarOffice Impress), and a spreadsheet (StarOffice Calc).

The installation couldn't have been easier. The tools work as expected. And the cost couldn't have been, well, couldn't have been anything -- because there was no cost.

Thus far, Captain Spreadsheet approves.

But does it work? Can it replace the time-honored slot that Excel has earned in Captain Spreadsheet's utility belt?

As you can see, I'm able to create both shapes and colors, so I am fundamentally satisfied.

My initial impression was that Calc is so like Excel as to be virtually indistinguishable. After using it for a couple of days to create a month-end budget report, I've found a few weird things that are different enough to make me suspect that Microsoft has blocking patents on certain combinations of key-strokes. But I got around each of those weird differences with only cursory inspection of the Calc help system. I've been able to figure out how to do everything I wanted to do with Calc. The only negative I've found is that in some cases, Calc falls into the same trap as Excel, with its million-little-features cruftiness that makes me yearn for CricketGraph. But it's good solid software. And it can open .xls files created by Excel. And it's free.

If I were outfitting a team of engineers right now, no matter where they were on the planet, I believe I'd take a pass on the Microsoft productivity suite, and ask my team to use StarOffice. Let's say, hypothetically, you have a team of 100 engineers. Even with corporate discounts from Microsoft, using StarOffice could save you $15,000 in software license costs.

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