Many people have heard of OpenOffice.org, the free open source office suite which in one form or another is the most powerful competitor against Microsoft Office, the default option for most Windows users. There are things I don’t like about OpenOffice.org. For instance it’s a little slow at first start up and the interface looks a little dated alongside the likes of Apple’s iWork and even IBM’s Lotus Symphony, which is itself built on the OpenOffice.org codebase. In use OpenOffice.org is a highly capable office suite and through its support for the Open Document Format boasts compatibility with a wide range of other similar programs. It also supports an extremely wide range of languages and has a growing collection of extensions, including my favourite, which allows upload and import to and from Google Docs and Zoho Office. The big advantage for me though is that unlike MS Office I can run it on all my computers, giving me cross-platform access to my files at no cost. It will even run off a thumb drive, in case the computer in front of me doesn’t have it installed.
Unfortunately, despite these huge advantages, the ubiquity of MS Office means the biggest problem for any office suite contender is file compatibility with MS Office. In this respect OpenOffice.org is good, but a variant known as Go-OO is better. Go-OO is essentially the same as OpenOffice.org, but with added features, including support for Microsoft’s Excel VBA Macros, import of MS Works documents–a notorious dead zone for non-Microsoft software–and for Lotus Word Pro. It is also faster on my Mac than the ‘official’ OpenOffice.org release. A more complete list is available at the Go-OO website. I would be very surprised if this wasn’t the most flexible and compatible office suite available. In terms of document portability it leaves MS Office in the dust.
Many OpenOffice.org users are already using the Go-OO variant without realising it. It is the default office suite on many of the major desktop Linux distributions, including Debian, Ubuntu and openSUSE, and is the basis for NeoOffice on the Mac. If you downloaded OpenOffice.org from the main http://openoffice.org website though, you won’t be able to take advantage of these enhancements. I recommend going over to the Go-OO site and getting the enhanced version from there. It will cost you nothing at all, looks very similar to the original version, but makes the whole experience a lot better.
When Apple introduced iWork a few years back it offered a slick, but limited wordprocessor/text layout tool called Pages and a rather more impressive presentation tool known as Keynote. It was a good start, but it was hardly a challenge to Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. In its iWork ’08 iteration both of these apps were improved significantly and a spreadsheet application was added, making the suite a more viable contender. I was impressed enough to buy a copy, mainly for Keynote, as I had some important presentations coming up. At the 2009 MacWorld in January, Apple introduced iWork ’09, the most impressive iWork yet and, for my limited needs at least, easily a replacement for MS Office (which I haven’t used in anger for years anyway) and OpenOffice.org, which in version 3.0 runs natively and rather nicely on the Mac.
I like iWork ’08 very much. Most of my actual writing needs are met by a combination of Scrivener and Nisus Writer, but if there is layout required, Pages comes into play. For dealing with figures I love the simplicity of Numbers, especially the way it allows you to lay out tables in a human-friendly way. For presentations Keynote is the best in the business. iWork is also good value for money, but there is one thing standing in the way of me adopting it as my primary office suite: proprietary file formats.
I don’t object as such to Apple deciding on its own format. iWork apps operate differently from every other office suite and if Apple thinks it can do better with its own format, well, who are we to judge? The problem is Apple’s format is the default and you can’t change it. It’s possible to save your documents in a few other formats (.rtf, .pdf, .doc etc.), but only by exporting them separately. Worse still, documents saved in iWork ’09 format can’t be read by iWork ’08. Not even in a ‘You know you should really upgrade, but since you haven’t you’ll have to put up with this mess’ kind of way. I don’t believe there is a technical reason for this, but I suppose it doesn’t matter too much because I would never consider saving anything in the iWork formats if I thought for a moment someone else (including future me) might ever need to look at it. It also means a lot of things might have to be saved twice in two different formats, wasting disk space and creating a version control problem. It keeps me from using iWork more often.
This is completely out of step with the way things are going. Even Microsoft, hardly a paragon of virtue in this regard, is adding ODF support in Office 14. OpenOffice.org, which is available for free, can open and save a multitude of different and competing formats. It just isn’t good enough any more. The online iWork.com service looks like a slick way of presenting online documents, but iWork itself has a fraction of a fraction of the office suite market and making life more inconvenient for users than it needs to be is not the way to improve on that position.
It also looks weak. Part of the reason for iWork09’s online features is that they will make it easier to collaborate with people who don’t use iWork09 or, heaven forfend, don’t use Macs. But the point about using a Mac is that Mac users choose to be Mac users. They do so because they find Macs better, easier, more powerful; that’s why they have a reputation for evangelising. So they are not going to buy a Dell running Windows Vista just because iWork doesn’t have online collaborative tools, but they might choose OpenOffice.org to run on their Macs if they can’t easily save their work in ODF or MS Office formats or have to pay for the privilege of working with others. If some kind of half-hearted lock in is all Apple has to persuade its customers to stay it might as well give up on iWork right now and that would be a shame.
So come on Apple, what’s the problem with offering other formats in the Save As menu and at least giving us the option of using an open format? You have nothing to lose and a whole new market to gain.
The march of the online office suites continues. Laptop Mag reviews the new Zoho Office (Beta) and finds it a strong rival to Google Apps. For added convenience you can even log in using your Gmail or Yahoo Mail account details. I’m increasingly using Google Docs, especially for collaboration, but Zoho’s tools look impressive.
In the ongoing battle to eliminate distractions while working on a web-connected computer, several text editing tools now deliver full screen mode. Web Worker Daily has an overview. My favourite, not mentioned here, is the Mac only Scrivener.
Someone who would surely have mocked anyone who went to such lengths just to be able to concentrate is Dr. Johnson. Language Hat pointed out earlier this week that his dictionary is now online, blogging one definition a day.