Eleven Tips for Moving to OpenOffice.org

Replacing a complicated piece of software like an office suite can be a major undertaking. But, if you apply a few simple rules to make sure your needs are met, you'll be ready to be productive on the new software right away.
4. Don't Rely on Import/Export Filters for Exchanging Files

At first glance, OpenOffice.org looks to be ideal for exchanging documents with other office suites, especially MS Office. Several MS formats are available when saving a file, as is a batch converter (File→AutoPilot→Document Converter). Moreover, in Tools→Option you can set OOo to save to MS formats by default and to preserve the VB scripts it can't use. What more can you need? Patience, for one. Truckloads of spare time, for another.

The truth is, there never has been a completely reliable import or export filter in any office suite. Chances are there never will be. If there is, my money is on cross-compatibility between OOo, KOffice and/or GNOME office. These formats are all open source, so at least the development time will be shorter. But, even with open-source formats, filters are going to cause problems for the immediate future.

Why? For one thing, writing filters is an intensive and unglamorous job. For proprietary companies, making the perfect filter is too expensive—aside from the fact that they don't want you using rivals' software. For free software developers, more interesting projects always are available. Besides, the people who need filters mostly are not developers, so developers are less likely to see the need for them.

Just as importantly, many filters involve proprietary formats. This means developers need to do reverse engineering, a difficult, time-consuming and sometimes legally risky process. Filters for MS Office, the main concern, are especially difficult because the format often changes and may not be even backwardly compatible with earlier versions of itself.

That said, OOo's native XML format makes writing filters easier, and its MS Office filters are among the best I've seen. Yet even these filters are far from perfect, and users who rely on them should reconcile themselves to a regular dose of manual reformatting.

If you insist on using other office suites with OOo, try to limit the editable documents exchanged to short, simply formatted documents. Search OOo Help for “About Converting Microsoft Office Documents” to see a list of elements you should avoid. For those elements you do use, you can improve the results if you use only styles and ensure that both office suites have access to the same fonts. Even then, you can expect anything other than the simplest bullets to be garbled. You might consider making a list of allowable formatting to minimize problems.

If users of other office suites don't need to edit a document, select File→Export as PDF and send it as a PDF file. PDF files are close to an open standard; therefore, this is one filter on which you can rely.

The best format solutions for exchanging editable documents between office suites probably are HTML or Simplified DocBook. Both can be viewed in modern browsers, and they can be opened as text files in word processors, if nothing else. Better yet, get your company or community using OpenOffice.org by itself. You still may need to share documents with outsiders, but your daily life will be simpler.

5. Make a List of How to Do the Basic Functions That You Need

Before you switch to OOo, make a list of the basic tasks you or your division does in an office suite. Try to keep the list to less than 20 tasks. Then spend half an hour experimenting or browsing the Help section of OOo. Write down how to do these tasks on file cards and distribute them to everyone. As each person becomes comfortable with the basic tasks, replace the first file cards with instructions for less common tasks. In days, or even hours, you should find that no one needs to use the cards.

6. Use the Available Help

OOo comes with a fully developed help system. In earlier versions, the help files often lacked context and gave circular definitions of features. As of version 1.1, though, the Help section actually has become an asset instead of a formality.

Sometime early in the transition, have everyone read the first four links on the Welcome to the OpenOffice.org Writer Help page. The links provide a good overview for delving deeper into the program. You also should consider suppressing your natural annoyance and enable the startup tips and office assistant for a few weeks. Both of these features offer useful information in small chunks. Although your understanding may seem fragmented at first, in the long run the tips are a painless way to learn.

7. Start with the AutoPilot Features

One of OOo's features for newcomers is a series of wizards that lead you through the process of setting up basic documents, such as a letter or memo. You may not find the results exactly fit your needs, but they are a quick way to get started with OOo. Look under Files→AutoPilot. Just as importantly, try comparing the instructions in the AutoPilot with the final results. It's a good way of knowing what office suites in general and OOo in particular can do.


-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)


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Largest Single Impediment

Arthur Fuller's picture

From what I have seen, the largest single impediment to persuading my clients (and myself) to making the move is the absence of VBA or some equivalent language. On the Windows platform I have invested years of programming to achieve Offic Automation, combining Word, Excel, Access and SQL Server to deliver integrated apps that work brilliantly.

I would love to port these apps to OOo but as far as I can see, there is no available path to get from here to there.

I'm talking about LOTS of VBA code. 50K lines per application, at a casual guess. Simple formula-translations are just that, simple, but complex code is difficult if not impossible.

Lots of my clients would love to make the move, but until I can provide a conversion path, then it's a non-starter. And by this I don't just mean that OOo can read an Excel or Word file and save it natively -- I mean that the VBA part is the most important, and without that we have a non-starter.