Breaking the Word Processor Curve

by Bruce Byfield

Article has been updated since its original posting.

At times, using free productivity software seems to necessitate a tradeoff between philosophy and functionality. Maybe that impression is a prejudice lingering from the days before I became a free software supporter. Or maybe it's due to the fact that many projects are framed in terms of providing alternatives to existing proprietary software. Whatever the reason, I was using Writer for several weeks before I realized that I was looking at something unusual. Obviously, is the community's answer to MS Office, but it's more than the clone it's often called by mainstream reviewers. Writer not only stands toe-to-toe with MS Word for nine rounds, but it wins the fight. Okay, it wins on a technical decision instead of a knockout, but the victory still is worth a cheer.

When you first switch to Writer, this claim that Writer beats Words may seem hard to swallow. And no wonder; you're too busy learning the new menus to get beyond the fact that everything's only half-familiar. And if you're an unsophisticated user who has yet to learn (to steal the title of Robin Williams' book) that the PC is not a typewriter, you might never notice. However, if you're an advanced user for whom style, structured text and long documents are all part of word processing, then the claim soon becomes self-evident.

Understand that I'm not talking features here. True, with its PDF and Docbook export filters alone, version 1.1 of Writer leaves MS Word playing catch up. However, features are an arms race in which superiority rarely lasts for more than one version. When I say that Writer is the superior piece of software, I'm talking about the basics, the everyday functionality that can't be improved without massively rewriting the code.

Don't believe me? Consider this: unlike MS Word, Ooo Writer is built around styles. The word processor equivalent of inheritance in object-oriented programming, styles allow users to define characteristics once and then apply them as needed. MS Word offers limited functionality by offering paragraph and character styles from the menu and task bar, but Ooo Writer follows through with the concept. In MS Word, editing styles is like drilling for oil in the Mariana Trench: by the time you finish the descent through the menus, you're down so deep that you can get the bends trying to remember what you started to do. By contrast, Ooo offers a floating palette called the Stylist. Repositionable anywhere on the screen, the Stylist not only makes the application of styles more convenient, but it makes the editing and creation of styles a single right-click away. It also offers far more filters than MS Word for viewing styles, making them easier to find.

Moreover, while MS Word is limited to paragraph and character styles, Ooo also boasts styles for pages, graphic and object frames, and lists. It even allows the creation of table styles, although they aren't available from the Stylist. By extending styles into these areas, Ooo enables design at a level MS Word users can only dream about reaching. While hardly a desktop publisher, Writer is far closer to one than MS Word. In fact, Adobe FrameMaker, the proprietary long document handler, is a better comparison for Writer than is MS Word.

In places, however, Ooo Writer's advantage is more subtle. Much of the time, the advantage isn't that Writer has features that MS Word lacks; it's that features in Writer work while their equivalents in MS Word don't. For example, in MS Word, automatic numbering corrupts under almost any circumstances. Are you rearranging numbered points? Mixing number paragraphs with unnumbered ones? Mixing two different numbering styles, perhaps with bullets? In all these cases, you likely find yourself in a world of pain in MS Word. The numbering systems soon become hopelessly mixed. They also have the nasty habit of reverting to their corrupted state just after you think you have them fixed. The work around is to use fields for numbering and then create some macros to semi-automate the process. This workaround takes time to set up, however, and is awkward to use. It's also little known; when I work for an MS-centric client on-site, I'm asked how to solve this problem about four or five times a month.

Showing some fancy footwork, Writer sidesteps this problem by automatically placing all numbers and bullets in fields. The result? Automatic numbering doesn't break in Writer. You can edit numbered lists as often as you like without any problems. Once or twice, I've caught Writer stumbling, but it quickly corrects itself.

The situation is similar with the master document features. In both Ooo Writer and MS Word, the master document feature is supposed to enable you to combine short documents into one large one. You can work on the short documents, enjoying faster loading and update times, and use the master document as a table of contents for working files. This feature can do wonders for efficiency for anyone who writes documents longer than fifty pages.

The only trouble in MS Word is the master document feature has been broken since at least version 6.0--for over eight years. Far from helping the serious writer, it actually tends to crash and corrupt the component files. Expert users have learned through bitter experience (theirs or someone else's) to avoid master documents in MS Word, except for very limited usage, which defeats most of the purpose of having the feature in the first place. Again, the feature works in Ooo Writer, plain and simple. Once or twice in early versions I've had Writer's master document feature crash on me, but never with any damage to the component files. In the two most recent versions of Ooo, I've never had a crash.

Don't just take my word, though. Both these problems are notorious among MS Word users. If you look here and here, you can find these problems fully documented and explained. While reading, keep in mind that these articles are written by people who use MS Word at an advanced level and want to get better performance from it. Then sit back and consider the heroic efforts these people have to go through simply to make MS Word work vaguely like it's supposed to. Then maybe you'll understand why the mere fact that Writer works is such a luxury for a serious writer.

I could offer a number of other reasons why I consider Ooo Writer to be a superior piece of software. For instance, I could mention the smaller file sizes, its true text frames (a must for serious design), the database connectivity or the way that I can easily turn off the nagging automatic features and have them stay off. In fact, with the release of Ooo 1.1, the only advantage that MS Word has is a grammar checker, and that's a mixed blessing. If you aren't already fluent in a language, a grammar checker's air of authority can lure you into making mistakes as often as it corrects them.

But all these points are peripheral. What matters is that Ooo Writer allows me to work efficiently and without constant awareness of the software--statements I haven't been able to make about any other word processor in over twenty years of word processing. In my book, Ooo Writer isn't a replacement for anything. It's my software of choice.

Bruce Byfield was Product Manager at Stormix Technologies and Marketing and Communications Directory at Progeny Linux Systems. A sometime tech-writer, he has been forced to work in MS Word so many times that he is considering asking Amnesty International to investigate.

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