Converting to OpenOffice.org – My Experience

I’ve seen many comments and questions on the various e-mail lists about just how compatible OpenOffice, especially OpenOffice.org Writer, actually is with Microsoft Office.

I’ve largely converted my own business, including the publishing element (Energion Publications), and while there are some difficulties, the change in cost is well worth it. Even for a very small business such as my own, upgrading Microsoft Office can be quite expensive on a regular basis. OpenOffice.org provides an excellent, practical option without that ongoing expense. I now recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have some specific need for Microsoft Office.

When talking about compatibility between Writer and Word, it’s important to be realistic and practical. Two separate file formats will not be 100% compatible. The more complex your document, the more likely you are to find that some element of it doesn’t convert with precisely the same appearance.

In my business I have several categories of documents:

  • Normal business correspondence such as business letters, estimates, essays and so forth.
    These all converted without a hitch.
  • Flyers and slightly more complicated letters, such as letters including pictures.
    These generally converted, but often required some editing. If you are going to do future modifications to such a document, I would recommend that you redesign the item in Writer. You’ll save time in the long run. If you just want to print it, fix a few cosmetic things and you’re up and running.
  • Brochures, pamphlets, etc.
    These gave more trouble in conversion, directly related to the number of added elements, such as text boxes and pictures that were included. Most would convert, but almost all required some cosmetic work. Again, if you are going to modify and reuse such materials on a regular basis, plan to convert them. As an example, I had a number of brochures that used text boxes in Word for placement of major columns. Microsoft Word XP had given me so much trouble with columns that I preferred the text boxes. Writer’s columns worked perfectly, and the brochures are much easier to maintain in that format. It’s generally worth a little bit of formatting time.
  • Books
    Yes, I have to format books, and I used to do it in Word. I have yet to find something I can’t do in a good word processor that I actually need to do. With the means to convert the document to PDF, I’m ready to work with my printer. Book formatting will require you to reformat your document. Even if you were to manage to convince Writer and Word to work together on it, ongoing changes would be incredibly painful. Writer has wonderful facilities for handling the headers and footers, indexes and so forth (look here for a template that illustrates a small part of this).

Transferring files back and forth, of course, can be categorized in a similar way.

I have spent less time on Calc, but basically the contents will transfer, a percentage of formulas will transfer, but don’t count on your favorites, and macros are not compatible. I did not attempt to convert anything into Base.

If you have programmed VBA you will find that OO Basic is somewhat different. VBA programmers will miss the autocompletion and syntax checks the most, but other than that OO Basic is not horribly complex, and there are addins that can help you work past those issues. (Those will be for another entry.) I like the flexibility of using multiple languages, and am looking at working in JAVA. One can do this with Microsoft Office, and in fact I programmed Office largely from C++ rather than VBA, but thus far I’m happier with the layout, support, and flexibility of those options with OpenOffice.org. That’s just an impression, so don’t ask me to make it scientific!

I have one suggestion for learning OpenOffice.org. Some people are quite annoyed by the differences in the way OpenOffice applications work as opposed to Microsoft Office. They seem to think that OpenOffice should be designed to be identical in function and save them the time. But not everyone will be switching from Microsoft Office. Some will be coming from other suites, or for many, this may be their first office suite. Some things in Microsoft Office are not done in the best way, so I see little reason to perpetuate such problems. A little bit of time spent studying manuals and help files can produce a lot of fruit.

The key to learning is in formulating your questions. Consider moving from Word to Writer. If you ask, “How can I do text boxes in Writer?” you may have considerable difficulties. Instead, look at what you do with text boxes, and then ask how you can accomplish that in writer.

For example, I previously used text boxes for precisely positioning pictures, for text insets, and sometimes linked text boxes for columns on brochures. In moving to Writer I don’t ask how to do a text box, so I can continue to do those things one way. Instead I ask what the best way in Writer is to do text insets, position a picture, or create columns on a brochure.

Similarly, when I went from formatting books in Word to Writer, my question was how to do sections in Writer, because that was how I divided chapters in order to create the headers and footers I wanted in Word. Now I use page styles exclusively in Writer, which accomplishes the whole thing very quickly.

I am quite convinced that for most businesses the time and effort required to convert to some open source applications will be worth it. In many cases, the best application to start with will be OpenOffice.org. Be willing to take a bit of the money you save in upgrading all the computers in your business, and use it to get the appropriate books or even get someone to come in and help you with training.

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