Friday, June 21, 2013

Switching from MS Office to LibreOffice: Three weeks in

There's an MS Office for Mac but not for GNU/Linux. Although there's a roundabout way to get MS Office working on GNU/Linux (Ubuntu to be precise), the office software that's the default choice for people using a GNU/Linux system is LibreOffice or OpenOffice, both of which are free and open-source.

From the start of this month I've been using Ubuntu. The switch from Windows to Ubuntu has been largely smooth, but moving from MS Office to LibreOffice has been a bit challenging. There are many articles comparing these two, including a very interesting one that is focused on the compatibility between the two given that MS Office is so common and people often have to work on documents with or for other people. Compatibility is my main concern as well.

First, here's a list of some "office" tasks I did this month with LibreOffice:
  1. Worked on long text documents (50 pages or so) -- looked at comments inserted by others, included my own comments, used track changes, put together smaller documents created by others, etc.
  2. Used pivot tables and formulas in spreadsheets.
  3. Tinkered with spreadsheets with hundreds of rows and possibly a hundred columns.
  4. Added content to a document template with images.
  5. Looked at graphical analysis of data in a spreadsheet.
  6. Created a set of text slides for a talk.
And here are the problems I encountered:
  1. Comments included in MS Word are visible within LibreOffice Writer (the Word equivalent), but comments included using Writer are not visible when the document is opened again in MS Word. This happened irrespective of whether I saved the document in .DOC, .DOCX, or .ODT format. The last one is LibreOffice's native format, which Word opens -- although after presenting a couple of warnings that will make most people think that the document is corrupted! LibreOffice Writer can open, edit, and save documents in .DOC or .DOCX format, but the problem is with comments -- they are not visible in MS Word after being inserted with Writer.
  2. Graphical elements didn't translate well from MS Office to LibreOffice. An image in a Word document looked pretty strange when seen in Writer, and a colorful pie chart in a PowerPoint document was rendered in grey in Impress (the PowerPoint equivalent).
And here's the good stuff:
  1. Writer is great for general-purpose documentation. Users of MS Word might find that pretty much every functionality they use in Word is in Writer. But macros created in MS Office won't run readily on LibreOffice.
  2. I found that Pivot tables and formulas in Excel documents worked fine in LibreOffice Calc (the Excel equivalent), though there are some cosmetic changes in data analysis and presentation.
The problems have caused some discomfort but they haven't come in the way of my work. I like LibreOffice and I plan to keep using it. It's free, good, and made by the inspirational Document Foundation, that among others things is committed "to eliminate the digital divide in society by giving everyone access to office productivity tools free of charge to enable them to participate as full citizens in the 21st century."

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