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.

For the past 18 months, I've been badgering people to try OpenOffice.org (OOo). Slowly, I've come to realize that talking about free software isn't enough. The problem isn't that people don't like the idea of free downloads or of joining a project and having a voice in its development. After all, what's not to like there? The problem is that being sold on free software rarely is enough to guarantee a smooth transition to OpenOffice.org.

What follows are suggestions I've formulated for making the switch. Even the most open-minded people usually have assumptions to discard. They still have preparations to make and features to try. Most of all, they have some hours to log before they really can decide whether OpenOffice.org is right for them. Nobody can help an individual or an office switch if curiosity or a willingness to explore is missing, but if you pay attention to the tips that follow, you should be able to remove much of the pain from the process.

1. Don't Expect Features to Be Missing

People always say, “I'd love to use OpenOffice, but...”, and then they name a feature they can't live without. If they've glanced at OpenOffice.org, they might claim their must-have feature isn't there. Most of the time, I can respond by telling them where to find the feature, and they fall into an embarrassed silence and change the conversation.

Sometimes, this missing must-have response is sincere, but more often it's an excuse. Either way, I suspect, the assumption behind it is that free software always is inferior to its proprietary equivalent. When a casual search doesn't immediately unearth the feature, this prejudice is reinforced.

Even if the assumption were true, and Linux, Apache, GIMP and Mozilla users all know that it isn't, the assumption wouldn't be true for OpenOffice.org. Although at the time of this writing OOo is at version 1.1, StarOffice, its Sun-owned predecessor, has a longer history than people think. In fact, the first version of StarOffice was a DOS word processor released in 1985. With two decades of development behind it, the OpenOffice.org code is mature and mostly complete.

Admittedly, other word processors do have features OpenOffice.org lacks. It doesn't have MS Word's grammar checker, WordPerfect's Reveal Codes feature or FrameMaker's master pages. But, OOo has features these rivals don't.

The point is, there's no need for a pessimistic view of OOo's features. Usually, you can be optimistic and assume the feature is somewhere in the menus. It may not be in quite the same form with which you are familiar—for example, OOo's outlining tool functions quite differently from MS Word's—but odds are you can find it in some form, however mutated.

2. Don't Expect Features to Be in the Same Place

No doubt about it, the OOo interface is similar to MS Office's. The general menu structure often is identical, down to the confusing placement of Configure and Options in the same menu.

This similarity between interfaces can ease the switch to OOo, but it can be misleading, too. In places, OOo has cleaned up and rationalized the MS Office menu structure. Tables, for example, do not rate a separate menu in OOo; they are placed in the Insert menu instead. At other times, the same feature has a different name: MS Word's Autosummary, for example, is AutoAbstract in OOo.

In other words, OOo is a mixture of the familiar and the new. Fortunately, basic functions usually are in their familiar places, so unsophisticated users are unlikely to get lost. However, if you're an advanced user, you may need to be more flexible. If a tool isn't where you expect it, think about what other menu it might be under or what else it might be called. If your imagination fails, look at the MS Office Feature comparison in the Help files, or look at my more detailed comparison at www.raycomm.com/techwhirl/magazine/technical/openofficewriter.html. In most cases, you should find what you need.

3. Don't Expect to Need Training

Even though you may stumble over the placement of some tools, you probably don't need a long transition period before you or your company can use OOo productively. Most likely, the transition can be completed in well under a week. Basic users can make the switch easily because they use a word processor as though it were a typewriter. If they want to italicize a word, they don't use the Emphasis character style. Instead, they highlight the word and click the italic icon. If they decide they would rather use a bold font to emphasize words, they go through their document and change the formatting on each word separately.

The basic methods are not efficient ways to use any word processor, let alone OOo. But, people who work in this way use only a small set of tools. In OOo, these features generally are where such users expect to find them. Character and paragraph characteristics, for instance, are found in the Format menu or on the toolbar, and the spell checker is in the Tools menu. The transition to OOo may be an ideal opportunity to learn more, but meanwhile, users can complete their daily work with almost no interruption.

Advanced users may take a day or two longer to adjust. However, in the same way that knowing one language can help you to learn another one from the same region, knowing one word processor helps advanced users learn a different one. Advanced users know what to expect, and they typically have the confidence to search for it on their own. As a result, advanced users shouldn't need to be trained on OOo, either—they can train themselves.


-- 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.