OpenOffice.org vs. Microsoft Office
How does OpenOffice.org (OOo) compare with Microsoft Office (MSO)? The question is harder to answer than you might expect. Few users have the experience or patience to do a thorough comparison. Too often, they miss features that have different names or are in different positions in the editing window. Or, perhaps they overlook the fact that some features, although missing in one, easily can be added through customization. Yet another problem when comparing something to MSO is which of the eight current versions of MSO do you use for the comparison?
To cut through these difficulties, as I compared OpenOffice.org 3.1.1 and Microsoft Office 2007, I assumed until a search proved otherwise that, if one office suite included a feature, the other also would have it. I also focused on the three core applications: the word processors, spreadsheets and presentation programs. The results suggest a close feature match for average users, but in some cases, a clear choice for expert users.
In Office 2007, Microsoft implemented its Fluent User Interface (better known as ribbons), replacing menus and taskbars with a combination of both. By contrast, OOo still retains menus and taskbars. Both use context-specific floating windows that open automatically when the cursor is at a particular type of formatting. When ribbons first appeared, they were both attacked and defended vigorously. Yet for all the effort, no independent study has proven conclusively that ribbons are easier or harder to use than the classic menus and taskbars. At first, you may have to search for repositioned features, but neither has a clear advantage once you adjust to it. Most users are likely to be exasperated with the arrangement of features with the classic interface just as often as they are with ribbons.
Much the same is true of the on-line help. With MSO, users hoping for help have to drill down deep to find answers, and the arrangement of topics by questions is both limiting and hard to scan. With OOo, the problems with help are incompleteness and out of date and poorly written entries, but the result is equally unfriendly, even though the help system is more thorough.
As for the editing window, one office suite needs only to implement a feature for the other one to copy it. For instance, OOo borrows a zoom slider bar from MSO, while MSO borrowed floating windows from OOo. And, although you can point to areas where the interface of one is easier or more efficient, such as the template selector in MSO or OOo's Navigator that allows you to jump from feature to feature, these areas are counterbalanced by other features in which each suite is at a disadvantage. Verdict: tie.
The interfaces vary in strengths and weaknesses, but neither stands out as particularly well done. The main reason for preferring one interface over another is that you are used to it.
For casual users, Microsoft Word is extremely convenient. For every feature, from templates and content pages to tables and bullets, Word offers libraries of standard layouts. These libraries are not particularly sophisticated by typographical standards. Some, like those for tables of contents, are frankly an aesthetic disaster, but for those who choose to ignore document design, they are good enough, especially in documents that will be used once and then discarded.
By contrast, the rumor is that OOo Writer's developers were required to use the word processor for their own documentation. Whether the rumor is true is uncertain, but it is true that Writer has more to offer for those who are concerned with document design. Writer comes with very few layout libraries, leaving you to download or create them, but in compensation, it allows you a degree of control that makes it as much an intermediate layout program as a word processor. Kerning, hyphenation, the exact positioning of list bullets, headers, footers and footnotes or endnotes—all these layout features can be set with far greater precision in Writer than in Word.
To help you organize this precision, Writer is distinctly oriented toward styles. As you may know, styles is a feature that allows you to adjust formatting once, then apply the settings where needed, instead of applying all the formatting manually each time you use it. Styles really save time when you are making major changes to layout and when saved into templates for re-use. Writer allows you to set styles for paragraphs, characters, pages, lists and object frames. Even more important, Writer is so oriented toward styles that even a simple act like adding a page number generally requires them. Some features, like outline numbering, are impossible without them. In comparison, Word is far more oriented toward manual formatting.
Although Word does include paragraph and character styles, you have to seek them out if you want to use them. When you do locate styles, you have to drill down into menus to change them, a process that is decidedly more awkward than Writer's arrangement of tabs in a window. Nor will you find the precision present in Writer's features. Rather than using styles, most Word users, I suspect, would prefer to stick with its layout libraries. In other words, Writer is more for advanced users, and Word for beginners. Word's orientation in particular, is implicit in the interface, which makes manual formatting tools easy to find and styles just one feature among dozens. The orientation is implicit also in the fact that advanced features like AutoText are so deeply buried, many users still believe that they were dropped when ribbons arrived. A corollary of the difference in orientation is that although Writer is adequate for documents of hundreds of pages, few experienced users ever would consider Word for documents of more than about 20 pages.
Despite the change in the interface, Word is still crash-prone at greater lengths. Word does include a master document feature, just as Writer does, but as one commenter said, files that use Word's master document feature tend to be in one of two states—corrupted or about to be corrupted. Verdict: Writer.
You have to do more initial work with Writer to set up the templates you need, but once you do, the result is more professional, precise and individual than with Word.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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