Tuesday, June 06, 2006

An office suite experiment

From a posting I never posted: "I've pointed out the utility of a variety of tools to meet various needs. Yesterday I wrote about the release of OpenOffice.org 2.0. Last night, I decided to try an experiment: I'll try to use OO.o for the next month in my work instead of MS Office, just to see if I encounter any reliability problems. I'll let you know what I discover."

That was last October. It's now June, and I've increasingly used OpenOffice.org instead of MS Office 2000. Here's a bit of what I learned:

  • I like Writer better than Word. While I haven't exercised Writer as much as I've exercised Word, I have yet to hear of or experience "spaghetti numbering" in Writer, and I've experienced it multiple times in Word 2000. I mostly value that I seem to find it easier to use styles in Writer, and I also like that I can create PDFs quickly and easily.
  • I like Word's reviewing tools quite a lot. If I'm working on a document with another person (an editor or collaborator), they can make life much easier. I'd get many of the same features if they used LaTeX and latexdiff or DocBook and diff, but I've found fewer editors and collaborators who use those tools.
  • I slightly prefer the user interface for Excel to that for Calc, but I'm getting used to Calc. I've got one or two Excel spreadsheets that seem to take a long time to save in Calc. I've heard good things about Gnumeric, but I have yet to try it. I am concerned about reports on Excel accuracy.
  • I like the Impress and PowerPoint user interfaces about equally. I like it that I can easily save Impress presentations as PDFs or SWFs.
  • I certainly like Draw better than not having any vector graphics program in MS Office.
  • I like Base better than Access. For one, I can connect easily to a variety of databases, including industrial-strength tools such as PostgreSQL.
  • I like that OO.o stores data in a standard, open format.

There have been a few downsides. Besides having the one or two aforementioned large spreadsheets that should have been databases and that seemingly took longer to save than I expected, I have seen a few complex Word documents that didn't open well in Writer. The information was all there, but the formatting of certain parts was ugly.

What would I recommend to others today, if anyone asked?

  • Use MS Office if you need 100% compatibility with other MS Office users.
  • Use a tool that supports OpenDocument if you want your files to be usable in the future.
  • If creating office documents is not the fundamental contribution of your work, try OO.o. If you do:

    • Use styles (that's good advice in Writer and in Word).
    • Use templates.
    • Use PDF to publish documents. That's not because native formats aren't good ones; it's because PDF is intended as the portable publication format. For example, if you create a Word document and email it to me, what I see will almost certainly be different than what you created, for it lays out pages in a manner that's dependent upon the printer selected for each person's computer. A PDF is a PDF is a PDF.
    • Subscribe to a blog such as Solveig Haugland's OpenOffice.org Training, Tips, and Ideas to get daily tips on getting better at what you do.

  • If creating office documents is important enough to your work, and if you have the time to learn them, consider special-purpose tools:

    • I use LaTeX, DocBook, and asciidoc more often than Writer or Word for creating formatted text documents.
    • I use J at least as much as I use a spreadsheet for working with arrays of data.
    • Given the choice in face-to-face work, I often eschew projected slides of any sort. If I need slides, I like beamer for the ease with which it puts useful information on a screen nicely.

I find I use a blend of all these approaches. For example, I tend to do formal documents (major reports, proposals, and invoices) using LaTeX, I do a number of recurring short reports using asciidoc, I document processes either in DocBook or on a Wiki, I use plain text for most text communications, and I use Writer for (mostly) informal reports that include text and graphics.

What's your experience?

PS: I know most of you will (or have to) stay with Word, at least for now. In that case, save yourself a bit of grief, and check out a few handy references. First, the Word MVP site is full of valuable information. Second, Shauna Kelly has a very handy site. For starters, read how you shouldn't format numbered lists in Word (but you probably do; that toolbar button is way too inviting).



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