Open Office imperfect

Technical remarks: a) Perhaps I should have used the canonical form ‚?? OpenOffice.org - in this text. I prefer Open Office. It sounds better. b) English is not my mother tongue and I was not caring much about proper grammar while I typed this.

Open Office is important. Naturally, it is not important for someone not caring about free software. Nor is it important for someone not using a computer. However, it should be important to you. The chances are that if you are reading this, you are at least interested in Open Source and you are computer literate. Unless someone printed this page and started distributing it, what I find highly unlikely‚??

An office suite ‚?? and both Open Office and Microsoft Office call themselves office suites ‚?? is probably not an essential part of computer infrastructure anymore. Operating system is. Programming environment is too, for obvious reasons. Nowadays, as computers are treated more and more often as just terminals allowing access to ??ber-computer (well, the Internet), web browser is probably also one piece of software that is necessary for a computer to be useful at all.
However, when you consider application scenarios that concern business and school users, it becomes obvious that a main function of many computer systems is still content creation. This means ‚?? writing reports and essays, calculating spreadsheets, preparing presentations and so forth‚?? For all these tasks users need a good tool.

Is Microsoft Office such a tool? No, it is not, just in the same way in which Internet Explorer is not a good web browser, even in its seventh (well, according to Microsoft reckoning) incarnation. The difference is that the free software community was able to create a better web browser (actually, several better web browsers, but let‚??s concentrate on the most popular for simplicity sake). Firefox might not be technically superior to IE7 (I don‚??t know for sure), but it looks leaner. It seems to be more capable. And I think it really is more secure. Not that all these things are great achievements in fact ‚?? any properly designed web browser should be like this, but it is another story.

This is exactly where Open Office fails. It falls flat on its face, actually. Microsoft Office users hate Microsoft Office. Sometimes they even hate Microsoft too (‚??how would you feel, when your life‚??s work ‚?? like your doctoral dissertation ‚?? was irreversibly destroyed?‚?Ě). There is an enormous market opportunity for an office productivity application that would be cleaner, faster, more intelligent and more secure than Microsoft Office. Simply, better. Alas, Open Office is not even near to being better. It is just ‚??good enough‚?Ě.

Please note that above observation applies only to these people who use Microsoft Windows, or MacOS. Linux users are out of luck ‚?? Open Office is the only sophisticated office productivity software that can run natively on Linux. Of course, they can use Wine or CrossOver to run Microsoft Office, but this is somewhat suboptimal solution. Well, they could use DosEmu/DosBox to run Word Perfect for DOS. You get the point‚??

One might argue that there is plenty of office software for Linux. This is true ‚?? in theory. In practice it looks like this (note ‚?? this is just a quick and rough list, you can surely do better):

  • Abiword ‚?? it‚??s just a text editor, and not a very sophisticated one. No collaboration tools. Limited formatting capabilities. No drawing tools, etc. Some would argue that it is just a part of Gnome Office. Well, for me there is no such thing as Gnome Office, it is just a collection of not very compatible (from ‚?? for example ‚?? GUI perspective) software, marketed together.
  • KOffice ‚?? this is actually quite promising. Some innovative features (like Frame Maker ‚?? like word processor). The problem is that it is very buggy, and incomplete. So buggy that some releases (and note, they officially are at 1.6 now, so this is treated as production and not alpha software) are simply unusable (try working with tables in KWord 1.4 if I am not mistaken; or experiment with spreadsheets embedded in a presentation and so on). Bugs and missing features would not be a problem if the development speed was rapid, but KOffice lacks developers and lacks widespread community attention ‚?? main programs remain practically unchanged for years! However, they are working now on version 2.0, and maybe ‚?? just maybe ‚?? it will represent a project revival. I will return to this.
  • Web tools ‚?? like Google spreadsheets, Writely, Ajaxsketch and so on. Nice proofs of concept. Sometimes useful for specific projects where collaboration is important (spreadsheets + calendar make especially good combination). But doing anything really serious (like writing a book, or even a marketing report) with these is simply out of the question.
  • Text Maker / Plan Maker ‚?? this is nice software. But it is not open, it is not free either, and while quite capable its functionality is still way behind that what both Microsoft and Open offices offer.
  • Siag Office, LaTeX, etc. ‚?? don‚??t event start‚??

I could go on. However, listing examples of software (sometimes fine software) that does not constitute a functional equivalent of Microsoft Office is not a point of this rant (well, it is a personal rant, in case you have not already noticed).

The first natural reaction of any Open Office devotee would a violent protest. Perhaps Open Office is a best office suite in existence ‚?? after all such feelings are matter of personal tastes and preferences. However, for me it is not, to the point of being unusable, and for a variety of reasons ‚?? some of which I summarize below:

  1. Collaboration tools.
    The modern world is a networked world, and this applies not only to machinery or people but also to processes. Most of the work that I do is highly collaborative, and this is reflected in the nature of documents that I work on. The documents I edit are usually compilations of other people‚??s work that I have to review, correct and augment. This means that collaboration (comments, tracking changes, comparing documents etc.) tools are crucial, and Open Office collaboration tools are simply abysmal. Take notes ‚?? you can add notes, sure, but they end up as tiny, yellow boxes without any text, almost impossible to spot. Try printing a document with notes ‚?? they get printed all together! Reviewing them is almost impossible. This is worse than what Microsoft Office 97 had to offer, and when compared to Word 2003 / 2007 it looks downright primitive.

    OpenOffice.org comment
    A comment in OpenOffice.org Writer. Yes, this small, yellow rectangle.

    Word 2007 comment
    A comment in Microsoft Office 2007 Word.

  2. Zoom problems.
    I have an exercise for you to do. Open Open Office Writer. Now, zoom out ‚?? say, to 10%. What do you see?
    Yes, you see a large grey box and your document in the left upper corner of the screen. If you happen to have a widescreen laptop ‚?? and these are becoming quite popular, you see even larger grey box. Why the document is not displayed in the center of the screen is beyond my understanding! Obviously, the proper multipage display ‚?? in rows and columns - would be even better, but it seems to be something very difficult to implement. Microsoft Office can do it since, I think, version 97‚??

    OpenOffice.org zoom
    OpenOffice.org zoom.

    Word 2007 zoom
    Office 2007 zoom.

  3. Language tools.
    This is perhaps not that important, but it is worth mentioning for completeness. The quality of Open Office language tools ‚?? even English language tools ‚?? is very poor, especially compared to that what Microsoft provides. I am not talking about grammar, as this is difficult (however I do not believe that all talented NLP researchers work now for Microsoft Research; I think those who were sucked into Google should be quite bright too and could spare some of their Fridays to improve open source language libraries). I am talking about simpler things ‚?? spelling correction, in place translation etc.
  4. Community ‚?? clipart, templates etc.
    Free Software is about communities, right? Another exercise, then ‚?? please compare the number of community provided content for Microsoft Office and Open Office. Things like clipart, themes, sample documents etc. I know of course that the user base is important here ‚?? but it is much easier to retrieve this content right from Microsoft Office, and it seems that the MS Office web pages are *gasp* more inviting to potential content providers than that what Sun managed to create.
  5. Community ‚?? development.
    So you know now that I would like to have page centering added to Open Office. I know, I know, I should file a bug report in their bug tracking system. In fact I did it. Several years ago ‚?? this is bug number 1761. Other people voted for it, quite a number in fact. Five years passed by. OpenOffice.org jumped from 1.0 to 2.0. And‚?? nothing happened. The same for such seemingly trivial requests as antialiasing drawing objects, properly aligning mathematical expressions, displaying notes in a better way and so on.
    The problem that manifests here is related to the nature of Open Office community. This software is so old, and so complex and moreover so poorly documented that there are practically no freelance developers working on it. Most code submissions come from Sun employees and sometimes from people working for other, heavyweight companies like Novell. In my personal opinion this means, that there is simply no developer community around Open Office. It is free software perhaps, but only barely open source.
    The next version of Open Office is supposed to support an entirely new extensions system. Maybe this will improve the situation a bit. However, Open Office is not Firefox, and the trick that worked for web browser might not work here. But maybe‚??
  6. GUI.
    Last thing, but very important one. User interface, or rather looks. Open Office is not sexy. Microsoft Office prior to 2007 was not sexy either, but at least it was much faster. MS Office 2007 boasts however a completely redesigned user interface. I find it much more useful and well thought out ‚?? except for few rough edges, for example in Powerpoint. Some people think that it is counterproductive, yet almost everyone agrees that it looks very, very good. Open Office should look better. With compiz/beryl (whatever your religion is ;-) it has a potential to look much better on Linux ‚?? but I have not seen even any proposals for a new GUI‚??

Some final remarks. Note that I have not mentioned Office compatibility at all. This does not mean that it is not an important issue, but I would rather not treat it as a primary one. The killer application is a killer application even if it is not able to import the data created in an application that it supersedes. Oversimplification, I know‚??

The list above is a highly personal one. Other people would probably complain about other flaws ‚?? but if above problems were corrected, I would be able to use Open Office for my daily work. I mention only Writer issues, as it is probably the most often used part of Open Office, other components also have their problems. Like Calc not being able to cope with bigger spreadsheets‚??

What can we do? I do not know. Perhaps a next version of KOffice‚?? after rejuvenating community interest with Krita ‚?? will be so good, that it could be used as a replacement. However, considering the entire progress that so far was done towards KDE 4.0 (as next KOffice release is quite related to it), I highly doubt it. However, KDE development has a tradition of being somewhat ‚??behind the scenes‚?Ě affair, so it could surprise me pleasantly.
Perhaps Open Office itself can be transformed into something better. After all Firefox is transformed Netscape browser. In the latter case the transformation was somewhat drastic. I do not see Sun doing any kind of ‚??Open Office reborn‚?Ě project anytime soon. It is simply too strong a company (feeble as it may be) to have to do it. The situation for Netscape was completely different.

Finally, I might be just wrong. However I have a feeling ‚?? just a feeling ‚?? that these thoughts written haphazardly above express the sentiments of more people. So‚?? think about it. Think about solutions. Discuss it.

Piotr Gawrysiak

8 Responses to “Open Office imperfect”

  1. Daniel Neveńće??al Says:

    I am the same meaning as you, thumb up. D.

  2. Tony W Says:

    “Yes, you see a large grey box and your document in the right upper corner of the screen” Just a quick correction — it’s upper LEFT, not right. This is reflected in your screen shot.

  3. Administrator Says:

    Of course - corrected :-)

  4. lore Says:

    Sad but true…

  5. Dricks Says:

    So true, but you said that firefox was better managed.
    It’s not.
    I think there is the exact same problem with the OOo community : many users(and so… beta testers) by few developers.

    As a web developer, i have to develop professional (rich) applications, and trust me, FFx is, in this regard, not better at all than IE. Sometimes one is better, sometimes it’s the other one.

    To show you that it’s the same problem for basic features that should be included into Gecko since years (ffx’s rendering engine) but that are not.
    One of them :
    https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=358452
    This bug is linked to the original one reported the… 2001-01-30
    ‘Only’ 6 years ago. And again, bunch of blah blah blah about the weather; and nothing.
    6 years Later, Gecko’s engine still doesn’t know that Multiple line tooltips exists (despite that funny point : Ffx USE multiline tooltips in its own UI point at web shortcuts under the menu- )

  6. David Wen Riccardi-Zhu Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Spot on about everything. The fact that bug 1761 is still around is a goddamn sin.

  7. zerohalo Says:

    I agree completely. I’m an OOo user when I can, mostly for “religious” reasons (I believe in Open Source). But when it comes to any work that involves collaborative editing, I have to use MS Office.

    Too bad Sun, IBM and Novell couldn’t get together and pour some serious money and developers into OpenOffice, perhaps rewriting the codebase into something the community can constructively contribute to, and come up with something that would be on par with MS Office. I hope that’s not dreaming, but it probably is.

  8. Cyrille Berger Says:

    Don’t expect the next release of KOffice to be “so good”, I have great hope of it to be good, but most of the work is made on the underlying architecture to make it right. So the next version will mostly a base for future improvement.
    For instance, you speak of tables, for some technical reasons that was impossible to make it right with the previous code base, and it’s very unlikely that there will be table in the next version, but it should be possible to have proper support of tables in later version.

    That said, KOffice aims at being a lightweigh Office Suite, and not as full featured as MSO or OOo, a balance between features and allowing users to have their work done well and easily.