Monday, 4 February 2008

How bad is bad enough to make Microsoft look good?

Ah, the old days. I remember when StarOffice was a product of StarDivision, had the lion's share of the office suite market in Europe, ran on Linux, presented a complete replacement desktop with file browser, web browser and email client, and looked just like Windows 95. Or 98. And then Sun bought StarDivision, then spun StarOffice off to create the open-source OpenOffice (well, if it seemed to be working for Netscape...) and now, years later, OpenOffice is a poster-child of the open-source movement, running on all major and publicity-seeking platforms, compatible (mostly) with Microsoft Office and still gloriously free as in beer as well as free as in speech.

So what, you are thinking, have I found to complain about? For clearly I
have found something to complain about, if I'm writing this at all.

Well, you see, the thing is: Over the past two years and two months (ish) of gainful employment I have spent far more time than I would like with Microsoft Office, and I have grown to know it. Not love it, by any means, as my rants in this forum have indicated, but know it. And although I would still get caught out by stupid little inconsistencies, I got quite fast and efficient with Word, reasonable with Excel, competent with Access and as good as was necessary with Outlook.

Which gives me a good overview of what, and does not, work well and gives me a comparison point for now, when I am updating my resume in OpenOffice. Not even a particularly complicated task, you would think.


Let's start with the Stylist. Which is the list of available formatting. In Word, this pops up in a side pane which, on a reasonable monitor, sits comfortably to one side, gives you access to everything you're using without needing scrolling, and lets you create a consistent document easily. Which panders a little to pedants, but does make professionalism fairly simple.

On OpenOffice, the equivalent pane comes up as a window which sits on top of whatever it is you're working on. You can dock it in a side pane, by double-clicking on a blank section of menu bar area, while holding down Ctrl. Gee, that's intuitive! You have to use buttons to select type of formatting, which is mildly annoying, and you can't search for all occurrences of a style from the Stylist - that requires you to use Find and Replace, which doesn't even offer you a complete set of options. Not something that most people would need to worry about, but having worked in an environment where I was responsible for public documents, cleaning up said documents was made immeasurably easier by the ability to quickly and accurately find and eliminate all rogue formatting.

And then there's the tables toolbar. For reasons known only to the developers, it seems to only exist when the focus is actually in a table. Which would be almost fine, given that there is an insert-table button on the standard toolbars, except that when it appears, up top, it shoves all page content down. Which makes the entire program blink, which is disconcerting and potentially migraine-inducing, and which also moves your visual and mouse cursor focus. Which can lead to clicking in a table, clicking again (can't remember why i had to do this, but bear with me) and, due to the first jump, having the second click land outside the table, which deactivates the toolbar, which leads to another jump, leaving you confused, migraine-y and infuriated. I eventually had to reposition the fucking toolbar on the right of the screen, where I don't like controls to be, just to minimise its nuisance value.

Minor point: In Word, you can remove page breaks in page layout view, having text flowing seamlessly with borders showing you where the breaks are. In OpenOffice, you can't. The value of this for any situation (i.e. not LyX) where you have to do your own formatting is immense. And not available in the world's only major alternative to Word (I'm sorry Mac users but: really).

Anything else? Oh yes. The font colour command works inconsistently and, to me, nonintuitively. Unless that was a bug, of course.

(P.S.: I have finally instituted a "rant" tag, as of this post).

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