June 22, 2005

OpenOffice.org Writer vs. Microsoft Word

Author: Bruce Byfield

Several years ago, I wrote
"Opening
Up to OpenOffice.org: Finding an Alternative to Microsoft Word
" -- my most quoted article. At that time OpenOffice.org (OOo) was barely known, so I confined myself to highlights. Now that OOo is starting to be used in business, a more detailed look seems overdue. Accordingly, I compared the beta of OOo Writer 2.0 with Microsoft Word 2003. Both are adequate for most users' purposes, so I focused on functions that power users are likely to want:
  • Styles
  • Templates
  • Outlining
  • Bulleted and numbered lists
  • Tables
  • Headers and footers
  • Indexes and tables of content
  • Cross-references
  • Conditional text
  • Master documents
  • Drawing tools
  • Unique features

At the end of each category, I give my verdict about which program has the best combination of features and usability. While hardly surprising, the results offer a concrete example of how open source tools are not only equalling but starting to surpass proprietary ones.

Styles

Styles allow users to define formats once and then apply them to multiple blocks of text. Microsoft Word supports them, but users sacrifice little except their own time if they format manually. By contrast, in OOo Writer, by formatting manually without using styles, tasks such as adding a different header or footer become a matter of laboriously adding page breaks. In general, Writer pressures users to format with styles for anything beyond the simplest, shortest of documents.

Like most word processors, both OOo Writer and Microsoft Word have paragraph and character styles. However, Writer consistently allows more control, offering settings for hyphenation, automatic page breaks, and the last line in a fully justified paragraph. The only advantage that Microsoft Word has is that its dialog includes a keyboard assignment for a style, something that in Writer requires opening a second dialog after the style is defined.

Moreover, Writer extends the concept of styles to frames, lists, and page styles. Write automatically uses many styles in each of these categories, but the ability to tweak them gives Writer basic to intermediate desktop publishing capabilities.

Writer's page styles are especially useful for designers; beginners are often baffled by them. The largest trouble spot is the pre-defined Left and Right page styles, which add blank pages to even out the page count -- a feature useful in hard copy, but easy to miss when exporting to PDF. By contrast, beyond including Themes for basic page layout and page borders, Microsoft Word has no concept of page design at all.

In their latest versions, both Writer and Word use a floating window entitled Styles and Formatting for applying and managing styles. In Microsoft Word, this is a new feature, replacing the cumbersome Format > Styles menu item -- and one of the rare examples of Word being influenced by Writer, rather than the other way around.

The Styles and Formatting floating window is similar in both programs. Both can float or be docked to one side, and both allow multiple views that help in locating styles. OOo's views are especially helpful, including not only the All, Applied, and Custom views of Microsoft Word, but also Hierarchical, which offers a tree structure that shows at a glance which styles are based on which, and a number of general categories, such as HTML and Chapter.

Word's major innovation in the Styles and Formatting window is displaying formatting using each style's name within the floating window, just as both programs do with available fonts. This is a welcome addition for character styles, but seems pointless for paragraphs, because the sample is too short to be useful and too easily obscured by indentations and changes in size. Word's Style and Formatting window is further weakened by the fact that, while basic format choices are available in the main windows, for details users must fall back on the drop-down list of categories that made its old Styles window such a frustrating exercise in mouse-clicking. Writer's tabbed window remains much more convenient for style design.

Verdict: OOo Writer. While manual formatters object to its extensive use of styles, Writer's enforcement of style use gives the program much of its power. Microsoft Office 2003 is an improvement over earlier releases, and includes some features that OOo Writer lacks, but its implementation of styles is generally more limited and less powerful.

Templates

Templates are documents saved so that other documents can be based upon them. This is a time-saving idea -- but in Word they cause endless problems. In particular, formatting options seems to be stored in both the template and the document. If the information in the template and the document differ, then the document is corrupted and often unusable. This close relationship is further strained by the fact that Word also allows multiple templates to be applied to a document.

Another problem, especially in group environments, is that the style window encourages users to select the prominently displayed "Add to template" button whenever they make manual changes. Since many users never stray beyond the default template, this feature -- presumably intended to help keep documents and templates in sync -- can cause other documents to reformat spontaneously when the user next opens them. It also means that the default template often differs on different workstations. Notoriously, Word users can never be sure how a document will look on another machine.

By contrast, Writer's handling of templates seems specifically designed to avoid such problems. For example, the relationship between templates and documents is looser than it is in Microsoft Word. In Writer, a template determines only the initial formatting of a document. A link is maintained only to give you the option of updating the document with changes to the template. However, users can ignore this link because the source of formatting information is the document itself.

OOo Writer templates cannot be altered from within a document based on them, and the default template -- not the same thing as "template set as default" -- cannot be changed. Nor can more than one template be loaded into the same document. Instead, users must choose Format > Styles > Load to modify a template with the settings of another document. The result of these arrangements is that file corruption is much rarer in Writer than in Word.

Verdict: OOo Writer. The problems with Microsoft Word templates have been known for years, and are badly in need of correction.

Outlining

For document outlines, Microsoft Word uses the Outline view, while OOo Writer uses a floating window called the Navigator. As the name suggests, the Navigator's main function is to help you jump to key points in a document, such as a heading, a table, or a graphic. From this use, it is a small step to outlining.

The problem is that Writer's Navigator is less flexible than Word's Outline View. Navigator allows only levels of headings to be concealed, not individual headings. Nor does it display body text styles, unless you customize Tools > Outline Numbering. Even then, Writer has no word wrap, so viewing more than the first line of a body text style with Navigator is often impossible.

Verdict: Microsoft Word. Many people will find OOo Writer's Navigator adequate for outlining, but dedicated outliners complain about its limitations.

Bulleted and numbered lists

Although lists are somewhat more stable in Microsoft Word 2003 than in earlier versions, rearranging list items or nesting lists can quickly corrupt the numbering. Applying lists via a style can make them more stable, but a better solution is to use SEQ fields to restart numbering. The best solution of all is to use fields for every bullet and number, but that requires recording a series of macros so that you don't need to insert each bullet or number manually.

OOo Writer sidesteps these problems by adding all numbers or bullets inside a field. With bullets and numbers safely contained, list items can be rearranged with few permanent problems.

Another advantage of Writer is that it creates list formats in a separate style that users can then assign to any number of paragraph styles. This separation not only allows list styles to be re-used with different styles, but also provides the screen real estate for an entire dialog window full of options.

Like Word, Writer offers bulleted and numbered lists, as well as outline numbering, which uses a single style for formal outlining. Both programs also offer a choice of bullet styles, including special characters and graphics. However, Writer goes beyond Word, with detailed options for positioning numbers or bullets, for adding characters before or after, and for formatting them differently from the list item text.

Verdict: OOo Writer. The list options for Writer are closer to those of FrameMaker than Microsoft Word's.

Tables

In earlier versions, Writer tables suffered from two main drawbacks: They did not allow rows to break across a page or column, and they could not be nested -- a feature often used in HTML documents to create complex layouts. Less important, but even more frustrating, number recognition was turned on by default, so that entering numbers in a Writer table immediately aligned them with the lower right corner. All these features have been corrected in version 2.0, and Writer tables are now a closer match for Word tables. Writer has even moved tables from the Insert menu to a top level menu of their own, which makes the resemblance to Word stronger.

Unfortunately, while Writer allows users to define autoformats, the feature remains less flexible than Word 2003's table styles. Admittedly, Word's table styles are limited, but Writer's autoformats are remorselessly literal. For instance, if you create an autoformat with 10 rows with alternate blue and black backgrounds, then it is useful for only tables with 10 or fewer rows. Add an eleventh row, and it has a white background -- and the entire purpose of the autoformat is lost.

Writer fares better in its ability to perform basic calculations. With a few small but annoying differences, adding calculations in a Writer table is much the same as adding a formula to a spreadsheet. This arrangement is much more convenient than Word's arcane system for table calculations. Yet it is less likely to interest users than formatting abilities.

Verdict: Microsoft Word. Writer autoformats would benefit from allowing formatting patterns, and from actually becoming styles, rather than non-editable patterns selected by the mouse.

Headers and footers

For more versions than anyone remembers, Microsoft Word has been haunted by a pre-WYSIWYG treatment of headers and footers. In fact, neither is visible until a users selects View > Header and Footer. Once headers and footers are visible, users must turn to an awkward floating window for switching between them or setting up different versions for beginning, right, and left pages.

In OOo Writer, headers and footers are a less intimidating proposition. All headers and footers are visible in the editing window. Unlike Word's, they can be edited using the full array of Writer features. Employing multiple headers is simply a matter of defining new page styles, and jumping to the current page's header or footer is a matter of repositioning the cursor or using a keyboard shortcut.

Writer also boasts two tabs of options for headers and footers. These options include both positioning and design choices such as borders, backgrounds, and shadows.

Verdict: OOo Writer. Microsoft Word's header and footer tool should have been scrapped years ago.

Indexes and tables of contents

In both Writer and Word, users can create indexes and various tables of contents (TOC) from individual markers and a selection of styles, but Writer includes more options. For instance, you can assign index markers in Writer to several entries or apply them automatically by creating a file of key words. Similarly, you can customize TOC and index entries using a graphical representation of elements that include lists, cross-references, and variables. Writer also allows you to divide indexes and TOCs into columns, or give them a background color or graphic. This ability to customize easily trumps Word's pedestrian choice of options.

Verdict: Writer. As in many categories, Writer offers more design possibilities.

Cross-references

Unlike Microsoft Word's cross-references, OOo Writer's cannot be built by selecting specific styles, such as heading styles or captions. Instead, they rely on entirely on markers entered in the text.

That said, neither Writer nor Word handles cross-references particularly well. Neither, for example, allows users to store introductory text for a cross-reference. The only alternatives to typing each introduction is to store the introductions in the Autotext or AutoCorrect features, or in the case of Writer, to create user-defined fields for them.

Even more importantly, neither application cross-references other files easily. In Word, bookmarks take the place of cross-references between files. In Writer, cross-referencing another document requires a complex workaround involving the Drag Mode in the Navigator, or, in master documents, maintaining a list of references so that you can add a cross-reference marker despite being unable to see a source in another document.


Verdict
: Word. Neither program comes anywhere near the ease of cross-references in FrameMaker, but Writer's support for cross-references remains inadequate.

Conditional text

Conditional text is a block that can be hidden or revealed as needed. This functionality is most often used for maintaining two versions of a document in a single file. For instance, a technical writer documenting a basic and an advanced version of a piece of software could set as conditional text those passages that referred only to the advanced version. Before printing the basic version of the manual, the writer could hide the references to the advanced version and print only the passages that refer to the basic version.

This concept is not supported in any way in Microsoft Word.

In earlier versions of Writer, conditional text was supported only by use of fields that were hidden or revealed by a logical statement. Since only a single line of the fields is visible at one time, they were impractical for large blocks of conditional text. Similarly, although Writer supported conditional page sections, users had to visit each one individually to show or hide them.

Conditional fields and sections are still supported in version 2.0. However, they have become obsolete with the addition of a Hidden check box on the Font Effects tab for character and paragraph styles. This new feature allows hidden characters and paragraphs to be turned on or off without any need to locate them.

Verdict: OOo Writer, by default.

Master documents

Master documents are collections of files that allow users to work on smaller and more responsive files. When the smaller files are finished, the master document collates them for publication.

At least that is the theory. In Microsoft Word, the practice has been different for almost a decade. Years ago, on the Word MVP site,
John McGhie wrote, "A master document has only two possible states: Corrupt, or just about to be corrupt." Microsoft Word 2003 does nothing to change that harsh summary. Although McGhie's statement has been challenged, the only way to avoid either state in Word is to avoid using every feature that makes a master document handy.

In Writer, the theory and practice of master documents are much closer. As with FrameMaker's book files, users can manage a master document in Writer from a special view of the Navigator's floating window. Because of its small size, this Navigator view is much easier to use than Word's outline view for a master document.

However, the strongest resemblance to a FrameMaker book is in stability. I have managed several Writer master documents of more than 500 pages, many peppered with screen shots, and never had a crash. The only down side was the unavoidable slowing of response when reaching the limit of system memory.

Verdict: OOo Writer.

Drawing tools

In version 2.0, Writer has a drawing toolbar that is a near clone of Word 2003's. Both offer small libraries of geometrical shapes and callouts for diagrams. The resemblance is so close that Writer goes so far as to take a step backwards by replacing its earlier versions' Fontworks tool with the more cumbersome Fontworks Gallery, an imitation of Word's WordArt Gallery. Fontworks is still available, but users have to know that it is there, and hunt it down in Tools > Configuration before they can use it.

The drawing tools in both programs are adequate for simple graphics. However, Microsoft Word benefits from the availability of Visio as part of its office suite, while OOo Writer offers a richer choice of general graphics tools in OOo Draw.

Verdict: Tie. Nothing in the drawing toolbar for either program stands out. And if Visio is superior to anything OOo has for charts, Draw's graphical manipulation is beyond anything in Microsoft Office.

Unique tools

Microsoft Word has several tools that OOo Writer lacks. Most of these are in the Tools menu. Research combines a thesaurus with links to other data sources such as Microsoft Encarta, while Translation is available under the Languages submenu. The Tools menu also includes Online Collaboration and Shared Workspace tools, as well as a grammar checker attached to the spell checker.

None of these tools has a counterpart in Writer, although an add-on macro that connects to Wikipedia gives the functionality of Word's Research. Nor does Writer have multiple clipboards like Word.

Writer's unique tools include wizards for automating support for additional languages and for downloading and installing free fonts. However, Writer's strongest unique feature is built-in PDF export. In version 2.0, this feature has been enhanced to give users some control over export settings, and to allow the creation of PDF files with bookmarks and links. Of course, Writer has fewer PDF options than Acrobat itself, and it cannot edit PDFs. Some users complain that Writer produces larger PDF files than other alternatives. Still, within these limits, the new version of the PDF export tool makes the purchase of Acrobat unnecessary -- even if you happen to run on a platform that it supports.

Verdict: Tie. Although Writer's unique features seem more practical for most users, Word's unique features are still ones that OpenOffice.org might consider imitating some day.

Conclusion

OOo Writer scores most of its victories in features that make the creation and maintenance of highly formatted or long documents easier. This pattern is not accidental. According to
Elizabeth Mathias of Sun Microsystems, the documentation of OpenOffice.org has a long history of being written in Writer itself. As a result, the program's developers had the incentive to include the tools they needed. This legacy continues to give Writer advantages over competitors like Word.

That is not to say that Writer is a perfect program. Its interface is wildly inconsistent. Some features, notably cross-references, can most kindly be described as lacking. And in version 2.0, the attempt to imitate Microsoft Word hides several useful features.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, OOo Writer is not only as fully developed as Microsoft Word, but often superior in terms of features and stability.

Several years ago I concluded "Opening Up to OpenOffice.org" by saying, "OOo Writer outperforms Microsoft Word in almost every way." With the release of the version 2.0 beta, that statement is truer than ever. At its worst, OOo Writer is an adequate alternative for Microsoft Word. Most of the time, it is a superior one. And the greater your need for page design features or long document handling, the greater that superiority becomes.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge and the Linux Journal Web sites.

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