August 22, 2007

Sun ODF plugin chokes on Office 2007

Author: Bruce Byfield

Users regularly cite lack of compatibility with Microsoft Office files as a reason for not using OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice.org does include Microsoft Office export filters, as well as a number of settings for increased compatibility, but these features provide only good, not complete, compatibility. For this reason, Sun Microsystems' ODF Plugin for Microsoft Office, released earlier this year, sounded like good news. Promising export and import filters for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, the free download appeared to tackle compatibility from a new but promising angle by giving Microsoft Office users the ability to open and save files in Open Document Format, the default format for OpenOffice.org 2.0 and higher. Unfortunately, the plugin is designed for older versions of Windows and Microsoft Office. If you're using the increasingly ubiquitous Vista and Microsoft Office 2007, the plugin delivers only a fraction of what it promises.

The ODF Plugin is available as a free download under a proprietary but generous license that makes its use free for personal, research, instructional, and commercial uses, barring only distribution by service providers to "affiliated companies or to government agencies" as well as any use in nuclear facilities. The download is over 30MB -- surprisingly large for a set of filters -- but installs easily from a wizard. Once the plugin is installed, the ODF filters are supposed to be available when you save a file.

However, in practice, the plugin is a classic case of good news and bad news.

The good news is that the plugin works almost perfectly when exporting files from Microsoft Word. Where sharing files using Microsoft formats routinely results in a loss of complex formatting, a file saved in Microsoft Word using the ODF plug in opens in OpenOffice.org as smoothly as anyone could desire, despite the warning that some formatting might be lost when you save in ODF format. So long as both programs have access to the same fonts, line breaks remain the same in text paragraphs. Moreover, numbered lists, bulleted lists, cross-references, notes, text frames, graphics, footnotes, tables, word art, line drawings -- in short, most pieces of complex formatting -- make the transition to OpenOffice.org without error.

The sole exception that I could find is Microsoft Word 2007's Smart Art collection, which simplifies the drawing of common diagrams such as organizational charts. However, since OpenOffice.org does not have an equivalent feature, expecting Smart Art to make the transition perfectly is unrealistic. And Smart Art diagrams do open with their organizational blocks intact, lacking only their text, so users can quickly remedy the problem by adding graphical text. Otherwise, the plugin works well when exporting files into OpenOffice.org.

The bad news is that much of what Sun promises in the plugin does not work in Vista and Microsoft Word 2007. Despite what its Web page indicates, the plugin does not allow Microsoft Word to import ODF files. Try, and you only get a message that the file type is not recognized.

The situation is even worse in Excel and PowerPoint. In both of these programs, not only export but import of ODF files is unavailable. In other words, of the six features that the plugin is supposed to have -- export and import to each of three programs -- only one of them actually works in the current versions of the programs for which it is intended.

Granted, the plugin may work better on earlier versions of Windows and Microsoft Office. Yet the question remains: What was Sun doing, releasing a plugin that was obsolete when it was announced? The release dates of Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 were publicized months in advance, so why was the plugin not made compatible with them, even at the cost of a delay? The plugin's performance is all the more disheartening when the one-sixth of the functionality that does work is so successful.

Had the rest of the functionality worked as well, then the plugin would be a must-have for many home and business users. As things are, users can only hope that it is not another promising project that suffers an untimely death solely because its release was badly timed.

Category:

  • Office Software
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