Free doesn't mean inferior, right?
January 22, 2014 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Is it time to abandon LibreOffice/OpenOffice and go back to MS Office instead?

Years ago as a student, I abandoned MS Office in favour of OpenOffice because it was free, lighter on resources, and it had a print-to-PDF function. Since then, I've stayed on the ship, switching over to LibreOffice within the past year or so because I've heard the code is updated more often. It's stable, light on resources, and although it has been kind of annoying to consult Google for functions that are located in different menus/places than MS Office, it's been fine. I've heard people extolling its virtues on the Internet as a program coded as a cohesive suite, but it hasn't made any difference in my life as an end-user.

To be fair, my usage has been reasonably light--I rarely use styles or anything at that level; mostly just random typing, a few simple title pages for assignments, columns here and there. Although I know plenty of functions, I haven't found the need to consistently use them. There were some thing I noticed Word (MS Office) did better (snapping to edges for images, neatness of the track changes function), but it wasn't enough for me to consider going back to a software I have to pay for.

Recently, in doing an assignment for a part-time class I'm taking, the instructor required us to do use styles and track changes. I discovered the first problem I had with LibreOffice here.

---Specifics of the bugs I discovered that you may skip--

 The instructor sent us a document written in word, we made changes, and it seemed fine after I did track changes and applied styles...but after I saved it, closed it, then reopened it, I discovered that the new words I added in remained along with the old words I deleted, changing a document that was 80% cohesive into a pile of gibberish.

I.e. Imagine that the original sentence said "I ate a hot dog", I changed it to "I ate a delicious hot dog sausage", and although it looked fine when I SAVED and CLOSED the document, upon reopening it it looked like "I ate a delicious hot dog sausage". This applied to all changes I'd made to the document. No amount of reinstalling, updating versions, reapplying styles, and troubleshooting helped. Headers and footers also tended to disappear/duplicate weirdly (this is a known bug, although Google has not eluded any info on the other problem). Styles, although not problematic, also seemed easier on MS Word.

Anyway, this isn't really a question on bug reports, I just thought I'd give context.

---End bug report---

I had previously edited a friend's Word doc without trouble (to be fair, it was just words, no styles, header/footer, or anything fancy). But after the above debacle, I'm starting to wonder if it's time to go back to MS Office. For better or for worse MS is the standard across all industries. I'm starting to do more writing stuff (starting a grant-writing volunteer gig at the end of the month, hoping to also do more stuff in the future) that may be transmitted to various users, and maybe it's not worth sticking to a software that might have compatibility issues with the standard, open-source love and decent coding be damned. The fact that I might have further assignments using similar functions (and possibly running into similar problems?) is also a concern.

Developers, users, and all professionals: have you seen professional users stick with Open/LibreOffice? Is is viable in terms of compatibility? Do you find distinct advantages of Libre/OpenOffice that MS Office doesn't have? Other thoughts?
posted by Zelos to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
have you seen professional users stick with Open/LibreOffice

No. I've seen a few places that use Google Docs. I have never worked for or known of a business that used Open/LibreOffice (maybe sun did, but I doubt it would have been widespread even there). If you need to read and write Word documents, and they might be complex ones, you need Word. The company I work for issues laptops with MS Office pre-installed on them to everyone, regardless of what field they're in. Certain people/departments send email attachments as word or excel files fairly often. Interactions with people at other companies often involve word or excel docs. MS Office is definitely the standard for this across disciplines and industries.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:57 PM on January 22, 2014

No no no no no no.

If you're doing grant work, and collaborating with others, you're using Word, period. You can use whatever you want on the side (I use Google Docs for pretty much everything else) but if you're expected to review and approve Track Changes you need to be using Word.
posted by Oktober at 3:00 PM on January 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

My workplace runs OpenOffice. It's okay but we have no need for functions like Track Changes. If we did, we would probably suck it up and buy Office licenses.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 3:01 PM on January 22, 2014

Developers, users, and all professionals: have you seen professional users stick with Open/LibreOffice? Is is viable in terms of compatibility? Do you find distinct advantages of Libre/OpenOffice that MS Office doesn't have? Other thoughts?

Where I work, everything is essentially always either Word or plaintext. The small organizations, nonprofits, and other "not big company" groups I exchange documents with pretty much all use Google Docs or markdown-formatted plaintext. Setting aside philosophical opinions about the awesomeness of open-source, I just don't run into any real-world use of LibreOffice, even among open-source projects.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:04 PM on January 22, 2014

I am an academic, as is my husband. We both have to use .docx files for official forms, including grant writing, travel paperwork, etc. I also have to use them for submissions to most publishers in my field (my husband gets to use LaTex). I have found the occasional incompatibilities and risk of incompatibilities too frustrating and have switched back to Word. My husband has made it a crusade to hassle administrators when they create forms that are not compatible with LibreOffice (to be fair, he (a) contributes to the LibreOffice code, so can more easily tell when it's a problem with LibreOffice vs an issue with Word. And (b) he points out that non-compatible documents very often also break when used in Word on a Mac when they were created on PC or vice versa.)

I also think he can get away with making a stink about it more easily because he is more senior than me, and male. YMMV.
posted by lollusc at 3:04 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and the organisational responses from our big university and external agencies to complaints that stuff doesn't work in LibreOffice, or to files sent to them from LibreOffice that don't display properly for them:

My husband's admin staff: "Oops, sorry. We'll try to fix whatever's incompatible."
My admin staff: "We do not support non-MS products."
Our grant agencies: "Ha ha no grant for you."
Faceless large publishers: "No, please resubmit something legible."
Individual editors at publishers: "Ha, weirdly your file created with LibreOffice is not readable by me. What am I doing wrong? Can you help me troubleshoot this?"

In other words, while some professionals do seem to understand, others do not, and it depends on what stage of your career you are at as to whether you want to take that risk.
posted by lollusc at 3:07 PM on January 22, 2014

If you have to collaborate with Microsoft Office users, you pretty much have to use Microsoft Office. Or use the oldest possible version of .doc, and definitelynever use .docx.

Got so bad with the last client I was working with who used Microsoft products that eventually I just started sending him HTML files, because at least he could copy and paste those from the web browser into the eventual Microsoft document that was the product.

Seriously: Microsoft has done everything they can to make Word files as byzantine and unsupportable by third parties as they possibly could, specifically to discourage interoperability. I'm a huge open source supporter, and a huge fan of LibreOffice, but break down, suck up the Academic Discount, and buy genuine Microsoft Office.
posted by straw at 3:13 PM on January 22, 2014

If it's any consolation, Track Changes is only reliable between two identical Windows versions of Word. Windows & Mac? Tough luck. So Microsoft is great at being incompatible with itself.
posted by scruss at 3:14 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

About a year year ago, I tried using Open Office at home for writing--just writing paragraphs with no styles, formatting, or anything fancy--and then tried to edit the Open Office documents during my lunch breaks at work using Word 2007. It was a compatibility nightmare. Word wouldn't let me save as an Open Office document, and so I had to re-save as a different file entirely. When I got home, Open Office didn't want to open the Word document, let alone save it as a Word document, so I had to save as another different file entirely. I ended up with three different versions of the same file per day. I also had problems with spacing and fonts (and tables, when I tried doing tables) getting screwed up between formats. Maybe I didn't try hard enough to fix the compatibility issues (I just wanted to write my stories!), but I would never, ever do it again.

FWIW, when I was in high school (circa 2004-2005), my high school tried to use Open Office instead of Word--and the teachers nearly revolted. I took Business Technology that year (I was basically student IT) and spent most of that semester trying to solve compatibility issues between Open Office and Word and, IIRC, just ended up redoing Word documents from scratch. The next year, the high school shelled out for Microsoft Office and dumped Open Office. So... It's never been really been compatible; I've not seen that issue get any better over the years; and I've never worked at an organization (that's about four organizations) that uses anything except Word or Corel WordPerfect (and Perfect got phased out).
posted by coast99 at 3:16 PM on January 22, 2014

Incidentally, anyone who is still using OpenOffice should really switch to LibreOffice. It fixed a lot of annoyances that Oracle were reluctant to address.
posted by scruss at 3:19 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think this will address tracking changes, but any discussion of compatibility should include .rtf.
posted by notned at 3:23 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've made sure to use .doc only since my OpenOffice days, but even that's not saving me now. I did suspect I'll just have to get MS Office, yeah.

Is Office 2013 decent? I'm resenting the push to get everything into the cloud (I haven't even installed the windows 8.1 yet, although since it's an update and not an upgrade I guess I'll have to), but I want something that's not pushy about getting everything to the cloud. I won't get Office 365, but is 2013 okay? Or should I stick with 2010? I'm running Windows 8.
posted by Zelos at 3:38 PM on January 22, 2014

Funny you asked -- just last week OpenOffice (for Mac) got majorly buggy on me after a couple of years working just fine. With my tail between my legs, I installed MS Office 2013. So far, so good.
posted by quixotictic at 3:47 PM on January 22, 2014

I work for an open source consulting company, and we use Office. The reality is if you need to interact with Word users you are going to run into hassles trying to convert back and forth between Word and Office. Sad, but true.
posted by COD at 4:07 PM on January 22, 2014

Word is an ecosystem and a culture, LibreOffice is a program.
posted by benzenedream at 4:24 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

is 2013 okay? Or should I stick with 2010? I'm running Windows 8.

I'm new to 2013, my impression is that the interface changes are there to better take advantage of touchscreens (like win8 itself). So if you're running it on a machine that lacks a touchscreen, and are already familiar with 2010, it might be easier to stick with what you know for now. If you are running it on a touchscreen, 2013 might be the more interesting choice if you're ok with trying a new tool layout.
posted by anonymisc at 4:35 PM on January 22, 2014

Most of the academic research laboratories I've been involved with primarily use Linux. The groups in question purchased Windows boxes or Macs specifically for the purpose of using Word and PowerPoint. The incompatibilities bite me every time I try to use OpenOffice.
posted by grouse at 5:32 PM on January 22, 2014

Word is an ecosystem and a culture, LibreOffice is a program.

This pretty much nails it. To put it another way,

What LibreOffice IS: a competent and reliable office suit for personal use
What LibreOffice IS NOT: a proxy for the professional use of MS Office

For better or worse, MS Word is the defacto standard in many fields, and it does not necessarily play well with others. This also applies to the spreadsheet (Calc/Excel) and slide presentation (Impress/Powerpoint) portions of the software as well.
posted by grog at 5:59 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

In answer to whether Word 2013 is okay: I use Word a fair amount at work (including track changes and commenting) and I didn't notice any major differences in functionality or tool-placement between it and Word 2010. You don't have to use the cloud features if you don't want to, though 2013 does try to nudge you into doing it when you first run it. Unless you find a compelling reason not to, I'd go with 2013 so that you're future-proofed for a while.
posted by Aleyn at 6:12 PM on January 22, 2014

Also, you can try Office 2013 before buying it to see for yourself whether you'd be comfortable with the changes.
posted by Aleyn at 6:14 PM on January 22, 2014

Yes. The last two companies I've worked for (both successful, one very long-running) have been LibreOffice shops (previous to the split, they were obviously OpenOffice). Some of the sales and marketing people at my current place choose to buy Office licenses, but it's not universal. We've honestly had more compatibility problems with Office than with LO. In particular, font handling when rendering to PDF with Office (to be viewed on different machines / OSes) is a constant nightmare. We had to move everyone over to third-party PDF "printers" to solve that, actually. We've also had issues with filling some form fields across different versions of Office. This is not to say that LO is bug-free, either, but for us there's no reason to pay for Office because we're not gaining any work hours by doing so.
posted by introp at 6:59 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you use Libre Office and choose to save in Word (.doc, .docx) format, you get a pop-up warning saying "This document may contain formatting or content that cannot be saved in the currently selected file format." You then have to click the "Use MS Word Format" button, or the "Use ODF Format" button. This is part of what that pop-up is talking about.

Libre Office's ability to read and write Office formats is a convenience, but not a guarantee. Heck, even different versions of MS Word don't handle Track Changes properly.

Libre Office is perfectly fine as a professional-level office suite. I've been using it daily for years, and I do stupidly complex 30+sheet spreadsheets with paragraph-long formulas. It works beautifully, and is my weapon of choice for my own internal work. But when I have to collaborate with a client on a Word project, I work in Word natively. It's the only way to even come close to getting it right.
posted by xedrik at 8:54 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody. I picked up a copy of MS Office 2013 (I'm a little sad I missed Christmas sales, if there were any). So far, a quick testing of track changes and various styles with a fresh copy of the old assignment that screwed up seems to be working fine so far. I've disabled the cloud features of Office 2013 and Windows 8.1 with some googling, and so far I've been adapting to the interface just fine.

I won't mark best answer because almost everyone agreed here (the ones that had LO work fine for them seemed to be using them independently, and I do expect to be collaborating with documents made in MS Word), but marking the question resolved now.
posted by Zelos at 5:02 PM on January 25, 2014

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