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

by Bruce Byfield

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.

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