In praise of OpenOffice Base and good documentation

After downloading the whole suite of tools from, I have been exploring ways of using as many of them to teach an introductory statistics course. Since this is a class in a business school, I have some rather tough customers, who use the proprietary alternatives and are content doing so. In such a context, even one flaky in OO is enough to warrant a protest, or worse, a boycott.

To start with, I created a Calc spreadsheet and explored a few of its functions. Then I got a little greedy: I wanted to run more complex queries (e.g. "group by") on the data to extract more information. A quick search brought up an SQL query on the data, but this meant I had to import my data into a database and examine it.

Having worked with commercial databases, I was thinking that getting started with OO Base would take a while. I braced myself to browse through long-winded, wordy explanations, sans pictures of course. On Googling, I landed at FSM and this fantastic how-to article on dealing with databases in OpenOffice.

The clarity of the writing blew me away. The author has gone through all the scenarios a beginning user would encounter. There are many ways to create a new database, listed here in the order of effort (the effort buck, as the author would describe it):

  1. With an existing spreadsheet
  2. As an imported table pasted into the DB
  3. From scratch, via a table design

The author has described all the three routes, with the right screenshots! Importing data, one has to designate some field as a primary key. Oh yes, that is explained, with screenshots. Oh, do you want to get into the design view of a table? Explained, with screenshots.

Bottomline: I got cracking in no time at all, and my database is ready. It probably took me twenty minutes of reading plus time to import. How often can you claim that you can do this with a database? There are elaborate tutorials that one has to go through to get this far with commercial tools.

Well, while we are on this, I have been approaching OpenOffice tools with a guarded skepticism, having tried them a couple of years ago. And what a difference! Much water has flown under the bridge (read: many people have sunk their precious time into making things work) and today, I use Impress to make presentations, Calc to create spreadsheets, and of course Writer, with free abandon. With Solveig's article, I feel like I have graduated to use Base.

Open source documentation made available to users like me in this way would one day offer a compelling reason to consider switching out of the existing options. Well, not just OS docs, but any tool's docs in this format would click!


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