OOo Off the Wall: The Elephant in the Living Room -- OOo and MS Office

A look at how the OOo project balances being similar to MS Office with maintaining its unique, better features.

For (OOo), MS Office (MSO) is the elephant in the living
room. As much as the project might want to ignore MSO, it cannot.
Many potential users never have used anything except MSO, and most
have to share files with MSO users at some point. The lucky exceptions,
of course, are those in a free software work or educational environment,
who deal only with equally lucky family members and friends.

For these reasons, includes design elements and features
to making interacting with MS Office and switching from it as easy as
possible. Much of the interface as well as the basic work flow is the
same in both programs. Many features have the same name and are located in the
same place in the menu, although enough differences exist that users
occasionally will stumble. In additional, several features exist specifically
for interacting with MSO. Yet, in the end, despite all of these provisions,
you still need to plan intelligently if you regularly share files
between OOo and MSO.
Similarity in Work Flows and Interfaces
MS Office users will feel at home immediately in Originally designed to imitate MS Office,
has started to depart from MSO in some ways. Yet the interface for
basic tasks is still a close duplicate of MS. For example, in both
office suites:

  • Page Preview and Print is in the File menu
  • Find & Replace is in the Edit menu
  • fields, objects and graphics are added using the Insert
  • most manual formatting is done using the Format
  • spellcheck is at the top of the Tools menu
  • Tools > Macros includes a macro recorder

Even the two programs' shortcomings are similar. For example, the menus in both office
suites offer the confusing choice of Configure or Option in the Tool
menu. Moreover, at times, OOo is overzealous in imitating MSO. Version
2.0, for instance, replaces the Fontwork tool with the less efficient
Fontwork Gallery in order to be more like MSO. The same is true for the
replacement of the Font Merge tool with the Font Merge Wizard. Still,
OOo having basic tools in the same place as MSO does offer the advantage of
bringing new users up to speed quickly.
Differences in Work Flows and Interfaces and MS Office have some basic similarities, but they
can be deceptive. The more you explore,
the more you start to see differences. Some of these differences
are trivial, but many are improvements and go deeper than you might
first imagine.

To start with, some features have different names. For instance,
Autosummary in MS Word becomes AutoAbstract in Writer. Similarly, Slide
Sorter in MS PowerPoint becomes Slides View in Impress. More obscurely,
the PivotTable in MS Excel becomes the DataPilot in Calc. There seems
to be little reason for these changes except, maybe, to make
seem more different from MS Office than it actually is. However, with a little
imagination, you usually can get past these trivial changes. If you are
baffled, "Comparing Microsoft Office and Terms"--located under
Common Help Topics in the Help files--may help to orient you.

More seriously, although's basic menu structure
is similar to MS Word's, advanced features often are found in different
places. Some of these changes, such as the division of font attributes
over several tabs in Format -> Characters, are dubious improvements
at best. More often, they are a welcome change to MS Office's often
haphazard menus. Often, items are placed in more logical locations. At
times, advanced features are tucked away in sub-menus.

Differences in include:

  • templates tools are in the File menu, not the tool
  • tables are in the Insert menu instead of being a main
    menu item
  • the label wizard is located under File -> New in Writer. Unlike
    MS Word's label feature, it's a true wizard and has a full set of
    instructions. For some reason, though, envelopes are found under Insert and
    don't rate a wizard.
  • outline and summary tools are under File -> Send
  • collaboration tools are in the Edit menu

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it does cover the
differences that users are likely to encounter first when moving from
MSO to OOo.

In many ways,'s interface is the overhaul that MS
Office has needed for several versions. I'd compare the differences to
those between North American cars and Japanese cars when they were first
introduced into the market. Like the first Japanese cars,
is not superlatively better than its competition, but it's better enough to
be a sensible alternative.
What Features in Support MS Office?
Because MS Office is used so widely, includes features to
help users who need to open or send files in MS Office format:

  • save formats for MS Office versions 6.0, 95, 97, 2000
    and XP (File -> Save As). The conversion process is not perfect. Specifically, you can
    expect problems with bullets unless you make sure that the bullets use
    a font that MSO can access and the dropping of graphics that use the
    As Character anchor selection in OOo. Other manual tweaking also may
    be required.
  • a batch converter to change all MS Word, PowerPoint and/or
    Excel documents saved in the same directory (File -> Wizards -> Document
    Converter). Think of the batch converter as a quick-and-dirty tool. If
    you have highly formatted documents, you should avoid this tool. But,
    if you want to convert things like memos and letters, it probably is
    be good enough. The batch converter also allows you to convert files
    from StarOffice 5.2 format--the last release before the code was open sourced to
    created the Open Document format.
  • controls for how Visual Basic macros and scripts are
    handled (Tools -> Options -> Load/Save / VBA Properties). cannot read VB,
    but it can preserve VB macros and scripts so they work the next time
    the file is opened in MS Office. If you regularly switch files
    between the two office suites, this setting always should be turned
  • controls for how OLE Objects are handled (Tools -> Options -> Load/Save /
    Microsoft Office). GNU/Linux does not support OLE Objects--Insert ->
    Object -> OLE Objects actually inserts other OOo documents, not OLE
    Objects--so these settings can be important.
  • controls for setting the default save formats for different types of
    .org documents (Tools -> Options -> Load/Save / General -> standard file
    format). A default can be set for each type of document, such as word
    processor or spreadsheet. If you want, you can use while
    saving all your of files in MS Office format. At least one regular poster to
    the OOo lists activates this setting in preference to using Open Document,
    arguing that MSO formats are an unofficial universal standard. Although
    that choice begs the question of open standards, it does have the
    advantage of making sure that you don't try to send an MSO user a
    file in Open Document or OOo 1.0 format, neither of which MSO supports or is likely to.
  • settings to improve sharing files between and MS Office
    (Tools -> Options -> Writer -> Compatibility). These settings
    are especially important if you are sharing word processor

Planning File Sharing with MSO
All of these tools are useful, but none are substitutes for intelligent
planning. To start with, you need to make sure that the same font files
are available for both OOo and MSO. Don't rely on font names alone,
because several non-identical versions of common typefaces often are
available. If your free software philosophy allows, you may want to use
the Font Wizard to install the free Microsoft fonts on your GNU/Linux
installation and use only them when file-sharing.

More importantly, develop and test a template for file-sharing. Your
tests should include all of the formatting features that you are likely to
use. As you develop workarounds for problems, store the answers in the
template so that you can refer to them quickly.

Finally, manage everyone's expectations. Slight changes in line breaks
and extra lines are to be expected when files are swapped between
OOo and MSO. For complex layouts, such as brochures, your best bet
still is likely to be PDF. And, in general, the simpler the formatting,
the more likely files are to make the transition successfully.
Living with the Elephant
OOo's relation with the elephant never will be entirely satisfactory.
Although the project can change the interface to make it more familiar to
MSO refugees, it cannot provide a completely comfortable editing window
for them without dropping many of the features that make OOo worth using.
Moreover, in the next year or two, OOo will have to decide whether to stick
with a traditional user interface or imitate the new interface expected
in the next MSO release. Both choices will have advantages and disadvantages.

Similarly, when dealing with file formats, the project will be playing
catch-up forever, because it has to reverse-engineer proprietary
standards. In addition, OOo can never entirely satisfy users who want the
software to be just like MSO, nor the ones who want it to be independent
of MSO's influence.

Instead, the OOo project usually opts for a middle ground, satisfying
the most pressing needs but only to a certain extent. The result is
interconnectivity with Microsoft Office that is less than perfect,
but good enough for most purposes.


Bruce Byfield (nanday)


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

flag ms compatible fonts, bloat, java

Anonymous's picture

Good article. It would be a good idea for someone whether in the project or not to put together a list of the mscorefonts and other fonts compatible between the two projects. Then the list could be added to an OpenOffice package in Debian for example by flagging it as a "suggests" in the Debian repositories, and if the rpm package management works similarly, it could be done there as well. And since Apt has been ported to other distros, the "suggests" flagging should work fine. I'm envisioning a text file that can be opened from within a menu in OOo, so one could check what fonts are compatible. Not everyone has the hundreds of dollars to waste on MSO just to see what fonts are compatible.

Perhaps I'm complicating it too much. Maybe the developers themselves can simply put a little asterisk or star next to fonts that are compatible in the font selection menu of OOo, and enable the end user to be able to edit the flagging of the fonts. Actually, thinking further, if the fonts are added later by the end user (like the mscorefonts) then it wouldn't be possible for the developers to flag those, just what originally ships with OOo. Someone have a better idea?

btw, OOo is great, it's all I use, but it still is waaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy too bloated. If IBM can slim it down...

and of course, the never ending story....get rid of the java....please.

Interoperability tips, and instead of Office 12

Solveig Haugland's picture

Hi Bruce,

Great article and specifics on conversion. Similar fonts are a small but very effective way to mimize migration trauma. The batch converter is great; I used it to convert my massive amounts of training lab files. The Tools > Options window is also a great place to experiment with; I used the Tools > Options > Writer > Compatibility window, in particular the printer metrics option, to help solve some MS formatting issues at my last training site. The Tools > Options > Calc > General window is also a good place to go for tweaking if users are unhappy with how spreadsheets are working; fiddle with the Input Settings.

A word of warning for those used to previous OOo versions--you have to have a document of the appropriate type open to get the right windows in Tools > Options. Used to be, you could have any document, like Writer, open, and choose Tools > Options to see Calc setup options. Now, you need to have a spreadsheet open.

Regarding the next Microsoft Office version: I imagine most IT managers in a Microsoft organization are considering how they will manage the big Office 12 conversion. It'll be a huge difference and there'll be a learning curve for the users. Which begs the question: why not switch to, instead? Switching to MS Office--takes work, training, and lots of money. Switching to work, training, and virtually no money. That decision might not be for everyone, but given the price tag for the Office 12 upgrade, it might be a good choice for a lot of people.

Note/comment functionality in OpenOffice not competitive

Anonymous's picture

OpenOffice 2.0 is a good alternative to MS Office for most users, but not in the legal or marketing field. The current implementation of the comment function is a joke, several bugs have been filed for years, but the developers (Sun!!!) still ignore them.

There will not a breakthrough in any commercial environment as long as such basic functionalities for heavy duty office use are so badly implemented - says Chris, a counsel who would like to use OO, but can not due to this issue

MSFT Shill

Anonymous's picture

Your post is as bad as the SCO claims. Yell and rant that Linux is broken but fail to give an example. Would being counsel for Microsoft be the reason you really can't use Open Office?

Really? Exactly what

Josh's picture

Really? Exactly what functionality is broken, and how do you use it in constructing legal documents? Inquiring minds want to know....

Quick comment on comments

wyth's picture

I'd have to agree about the comments function. I use OOo quite a bit in academia, but as it stands, the comments and track changes functions work better and more intuitively in MSO. When you add comments or track changes in Word, the comment or changed text appears in a balloon alongside the text, and the general text of the document remains clean and clear. When I get submissions from students and make comments on them, this is very easy for them to follow, intuitive, and it's easy to select text (without selecting the balloons) and develop the work on a new document. It mirrors what the text would look like had the student printed off a copy and I wrote comments in the margin by hand.

In OOo Writer, however, the text that's changed is crossed out and the new text is inserted, making the text of the document jumbled and confusing. If you add a comment (a note in OOo), it appears as a little yellow box that you click on for a pop-up box with the note's text, rather than alongside the text.

Now that may not seem like much for people who are open source evangelists, but for students (especially younger students, first years in college with superficial web surfing comptuer skills), this is added problems that they don't have to deal with in the MS Office that came pre-installed on their Dells. And quite honestly, when I'm grading papers using comments and tracking changes, it's easier for me to see how something should work and see developing problems/themes by having the changes and comments all together and visible over on the side, rather than a text that's filled with crossed-out lines and yellow boxes that don't obviously reveal the comments.

Now in my case, I'm getting over 50 papers a semester; it's just easier to use Word than Writer at this point to work on drafts with students, and I don't have to train the students how to use extra software that they don't really have to use if they don't want to. (It's hard enough to get them to keep up with the class web page and blog.) I'm one teacher out of maybe 30 just teaching a particular writing core curricula course at this university, and at the low end, we're talking about possibly 360 students a semester who could be exposed to an open source alternative. But since this one feature isn't as functional as the pre-installed alternative, right now it's a show-stopper.

Hope that provides the kind of example you're looking for. I'm really looking forward to the day when I can revert solely to Writer and not have to worry about licensing.

Same...I was all gung ho

Reuben's picture

Same...I was all gung ho about switching the entire office to OpenOffice in the law firm I work in when suddenly.....

1) No Outlook equivalent (Evolution doesn't work on Vista & Thunderbird has no exchange equivalent)

but that isn't too bad....

2) Track changes function doesn't show balloons...and that was the deal breaker. It's really sad that what is probably an easy feature to implement has been given short shrift (saw some posts in 2005 for the change to be implemented) by the developers for god knows what reason.

Really hate to use Office 2007 (since we use Dell computers) but it might be the only option we have.

Fundamental flaw for use by lawyers. I don't know why people can't see it.

Office Format Standards

Anonymous's picture

The last point about playing catchup forever may not be true anymore, or at least in the near future. Microsoft has registered their Office XML formats with ECMA which is a European standards body and has stated publicly that it plans to do so for ISO shortly after that. This could help, I would think, should help minimize the catchup game, that I agree has a been a problem for so long.

IIRC, MS's submission to

scott_R's picture

IIRC, MS's submission to ECMA isn't as grand a gesture as it seems at first blush. MS prefers the ECMA because it allows them to add conditions to their "standards", unlike older standards bodies, which honor the term "standard" as what the majority understand it, a standard that others can use to create interoperable products. MS's submission happily includes a clause that makes it an "open" standard for anyone to use, as long as it is not used in open source software.

"MS's submission happily

Anonymous's picture

"MS's submission happily includes a clause that makes it an "open" standard for anyone to use, as long as it is not used in open source software."

Do I understand this correctly? I am allowed to write a Public Domain binary that converts between MSO ECMA-standardized files and OOo files, as long as I don't release the source? I can even write a PD-binary plug-in for OOo for this purpose?