March 19, 2007

Two OpenXML translators compared

Author: Dmitri Popov

If you need to convert word processor documents to and from Microsoft's OpenXML format, you have at least two choices. A new utility from Novell work as an OpenOffice.org extension, while a separate project makes an add-in for Microsoft Word. One is clearly better than the other.

Novell's recent release of its OpenXML Translator is good news for OpenOffice.org users who wish to stay compatible with their Microsoft Office 2007 colleagues. In theory, the translator installs into OOo as a conventional .oxt extension. It's supposed to add the Microsoft Word 2007 (docx) option to the Save dialog and seamlessly open docx documents in OpenOffice.org Writer. In practice, however, it turned out to be a different kettle of fish.

To test the translator, I installed it in OpenOffice.org 2.1 on Windows XP SP2 -- a typical setup for a fair share of OpenOffice.org users. During the installation, the Extension Manager threw multiple error messages, but installed the translator nevertheless. While I was able to save .odt files in the docx format, the resulting documents weren't of much use. Word 2007 refused to open the converted documents, insisting that they were corrupted. Attempts to repair them failed as well. OpenOffice.org, on the other hand, had no problems opening the converted files, revealing near-perfectly formatted documents.

Things weren't much better when I tried to open the docx files created with Word 2007 in OpenOffice.org. For test purposes, I downloaded a few random docx files, including those available at the Ecma Office Open XML File Formats Standard Web site. While Word 2007 had no problems opening these files, OpenOffice.org refused to deal with them, complaining about possible corruption.

As a last resort, I downloaded and installed Novell's version of OpenOffice.org 2.0.4. Here things got rather interesting. For starters, the translator installed without any errors, and it had no problems saving Writer documents in the docx format. More importantly, Word 2007 opened the converted documents without a hitch, though there were some formatting quirks in documents with complex formatting. Opening the downloaded docx files in Novell's OpenOffice.org was less successful. The application was stuck at the "waiting for external application" stage until I killed it.

All in all, my experiences with the OpenXML translator were less than positive, and reports on OpenOffice.org-related newsgroups and forums indicate that I'm not alone. The translator is useless when installed in a stock version of OpenOffice.org; Novell apparently focused on making the translator work with its own flavor of OpenOffice.org. Even then, the translator's performance is far from perfect. While Novell's attempts to improve compatibility between OpenOffice.org and Office 2007 are commendable, the current result of the company's endeavors are less than impressive.

OpenXML Translator (the other one)

I also tried another OpenXML translator. This one is available as an add-in for Word XP, 2003, and 2007. It installed nicely into Word 2007 and added an ODF menu item that contained two commands: Open ODF and Save ODF.

The add-in fared well when dealing with relatively simple native ODT files. As expected, the translator had some issues converting complex ODF files; still, the final result was perfectly usable. Better yet, once the translator finished opening the file, it displayed a list of elements that weren't converted properly, which made further troubleshooting much easier. As a final stress test, I tried to save a complex 152-page docx file in the ODF format. The translator was surprisingly fast, and did a pretty good job converting the document. Most of the formatting survived, as did things like the table of contents, cross-references, and pagination. I had to adjust a few things manually, but the overall result was not bad at all.

There is absolutely no doubt that the OpenXML add-in for Word is currently the better solution.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, US, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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