Sunday 23 January 2011

Why should you switch to OpenOffice?

I have always been a Microsoft Word user for a long time, and have used it for almost all assignments and projects (except for the longer ones where using LaTeX was more helpful). But I think now is probably a good time to switch to OpenOffice for personal projects and smaller collaborative projects.

Why so? Recently, I was mailing out some .xlsx files (that is Microsoft Excel 2007 files) to a few people, and wanted them to give me some feedback regarding the contents of the file (the file had nothing special in it, just some numbers and text). But, I soon started getting replies from people saying: "I can't seem to open the file, can you please send me the older version?" Of course! How could I forget that some people were actually still using Excel 2003, and that the 2007 version files won't work for them?

This made me think about the reasons why Microsoft decided to switch file formats. The main reason, I suppose, was to improve the way information was stored in a file. Instead of dumping all the things in one file, it makes sense to separate textual data from graphical data. To see what I mean, rename a .docx file as a .zip file and have a look at its contents. This allows for smaller file sizes, faster loading times and perhaps some other things. The more recent 2010 format is also different from the 2007 one, possibly due to the lawsuit by i4i against some IP infringement.

Another just as important reason for a corporation like Microsoft is revenue. If Microsoft stops innovating, well then they'll go broke pretty soon. More importantly though, with no way of convincing consumers (more so than corporations) to purchase the newer version of the software, profits would slowly, but surely, decrease. One effective way to convince consumers, it seems to me, is forcing file format changes.

One little problem while adding these features is compatibility. First off, if you happen to be using, say, Ubuntu, you won't be able to open any doc/docx files. Sure, OpenOffice tries to open docx files, but the support for this is sketchy at best, after all, only Microsoft (and the Office team specifically) knows how to read the .doc and .docx format. Others can only reverse engineer the format, and figure out a few parts of the puzzle. A bigger problem is compatibility between versions. If I have some conditional formatting (say if the text meets a specific condition it gets highlighted in a specific colour) in an excel spreadsheet on Office 2008 (the latest version available), and I send it over to someone who is using Windows 2007, the conditionally formatting doesn't always work! Sometimes the colours don't work correctly, and sometimes there are other problems.

On the contrary, cross OS compatibility seems to be much less of a problem in OpenOffice, and most bugs (as well as features) are usually well documented. If you need help, or have an issue, you're usually a quick google search away (or sometimes may be a forum question) away from finding the solution. Compatibility isn't much of an issue, because most people running OO.o will likely have the latest software installed (all upgrades/updates are free!), and be able to access the latest file formats. Plus, the files look and work the same regardless of which platform you use!

It seems to me like OpenOffice tries to accommodate users of all operating systems, and has a great community and user base to help you out if you run into problems. Of course, it isn't as full featured as Microsoft Office, or even Apple's iWork, yet, but if many start caring about the software they use I'm sure the project will get there sooner.

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