LibreOffice Notes, 1

For a project I hope to be taking on (for a real publisher, none of this “do all the work and see whether anybody wants it” stuff), I downloaded OpenOffice 3.3. Then, after being alerted to its existence and thinking about it, I got rid of that and downloaded LibreOffice 3.3 instead (version 3.3.2 at the moment)–all of the open source goodness, less of Larry Ellison (directly or indirectly), and presumably a more-or-less identical code base at the moment.

The idea was not to quit using Microsoft Office, especially since I’ve upgraded to Office2010 within the last three weeks. (Which, so far, I find a little cleaner than Office2007, and I was happy with that, so… A number of advantages, especially in the new “File” page, and so far only one minor annoyance.)

The idea was to offer an alternative, for book-level preparation, for those who couldn’t afford Word. I don’t think there’s much doubt that LibreOffice/OpenOffice is a reasonable alternative for most everyday Word uses and for most everyday Excel uses–but it doesn’t take all that much to move beyond “everyday.”

Heck, I even read a book on OpenOffice–after my attempts to open or import Access databases were, shall we say, less than optimal (yes, the tables opened…but with all table-to-table links gone, with all reports gone, and, in one case, with a fully-editable database turned read-only). That wasn’t helpful as regards the Database portion: I would up converting the databases into Excel spreadsheets, substituting page-to-page links for table-to-table links. But that’s a different matter…

Some Compatibility Testing

First, I tried LibreOffice as a truly compatible system, since it now claims to handle the “…x” formats (Office2007 native) as well as the old .doc and .xls and .ppt formats.

To wit, what would happen when I opened an existing document?

Trial 1: Current Cites & Insights

Yes, it opened. Yes, the typefaces were right. But…

  • The running footer disappeared entirely.
  • The issue was now 46 pages long rather than 44. Why? Because…
  • LibreOffice Writer turned off hyphenation. If you try to turn it back on, it hyphenates everything, including headings and subheadings. In other words, it’s simply ignoring style-level control of hyphenation.
  • LibreOffice Writer also lost all of the tightening I’d done, cases where I compressed a paragraph by 0.1 or 0.2 pts to pull a final word back up to the previous line. Oh, you can do that compression, but it’s much more laborious than in Word (partly because the default up/down step for compression is an absurd 1.0 points, not 0.1 points, yielding unreadable text)…and, of course, I’d have to go through and redo all of it.
  • Bizarrely, the Heading2 and Heading3 styles now assumed that all lines but the first should be indented 1.5 picas. This yields Heading2 (centered) that, if they run past one line, look absurd: Centered but with the second line offset enough to the right that it looks as though you simply don’t know what you’re doing. Similarly for Heading3.

On the other hand, kerning was fine and it seemed to retain bolding and italics. So it was ignoring some aspects of the original document–enough that it would have taken me at least 3-4 hours to get back to what I wanted.

Trial 2: Body Type Sampler

I put this document together to determine which serif typefaces on my system came with normal Microsoft software, so I’d have a set of possible alternatives to suggest (I have a couple of hundred typefaces that I’ve acquired in other entirely legal manners)…and how well each of them worked in terms of looks, kerning, etc.

I was using my default template, a very simple one, and using primarily four styles (but with typeface overrides on most paragraphs): Title, Heading3, First (first paragraph under any heading level, using 11-point type) and Quote (indented paragraph using 10-point type).

The good news: LibreOffice Writer picked up all the typeface and style overrides (each sampler paragraph includes normal, italic and boldface), and kerning was done as well as (I’d say identically to) Word2010.

The bad news:

  • Once again, the running footers were gone.
  • While the First paragraphs were still 11 point type, the Quote paragraphs–while properly indented–were now 12 points, which is bizarre.

Trial 3: Book with very little formatting

While disContent: The Complete Collection is no longer available as a book, I still have the .docx and .pdf files. This is a simple book, with the same running page headers throughout, but it does have a few typical book complexities–e.g., page numbering starts at the first chapter, there are lots of forced page breaks,

Let’s see…

  • Hyphenation disappeared.
  • So did running headers–to be replaced, on all pages, by a running footer that was only supposed to appear on the first page of the Preface, nowhere else.
  • The table of contents was a complete mess, as some lines were justified in a manner that made them unreadable (they shouldn’t have been justified at all).
  • The book was significantly shorter–because, as it turned out, Writer had dropped the gutter margin, so that the body text was now 4.7 inches rather than 4.4 inches.

Trial 4: Early C&I, using .doc (Word2000)

Just for fun, I opened Volume 2 Issue 1, which used .doc but also used drop caps at the start of each new story.

LibreOffice Writer did considerably better with this document–retaining the running footer, handling the drop caps, but still changing formatting in ways that made the whole text run a little longer.

Overall Conclusion

LibreOffice Writer is “compatible” with Word, where “compatible” is in scare quotes–because you have no way of knowing which aspects of a document Writer will choose to ignore and which it will handle correctly.

For the book-length projects I’m thinking of, I’m reluctant to consider it as an alternative, because it looks to be fairly cumbersome at pagefitting and at handling special aspects of a book. But, of course, 99.9% of documents prepared in Word aren’t books (I made that number up, of course)…and LibreOffice may be just fine for those and especially when you’re creating new documents.

I might give it a little more trial, using it to create new things, to see whether I can figure out how to have a Style palette display, whether its templates are robust, and other things that matter to me but maybe not to others.

And then there’s LibreOffice Calc…

Just as a side note, “Writer” and “Calc” are the program names–but if you open LibreOffice itself, they’ll appear as “Text Document” and “Spreadsheet.” Not sure whether that’s an advantage or a disadvantage. Also, LibreOffice uses Office2003-style menus and toolbars (no ribbon), which some people will find to be an advantage. Oh, and because LibreOffice will produce PDF/A, it’s a little better for cases where the PDF must embed all typefaces–I still don’t see how to do that in Office2010′s PDF save-as option. (Unfortunately, I can’t get rid of an Arial stub that doesn’t appear to actually be in my documents, but still registers as an unembedded typeface.)

I tried opening two mildly complex Excel2010 spreadsheets (or Excel2007–I’m not sure I’ve turned off Compatibility in either case). One is the Liblog2009 master spreadsheet, a biggie with thousands of page-to-page links and formulas. The other is simpler but uses a Vlookup to another page as a key element.

My first impression is that Calc is doing just fine with both of these, although it took a while to open the Liblog2009 one (it felt like more than a minute, but that might not be true). All the page-to-page references seem to be OK; all the formulas seem to be fine.

Will there be a ,2?

Unsure. I might experiment some more; I might not. I probably won’t play with Impress, because I so rarely use PowerPoint that I can’t really judge.

Overall? LibreOffice is one heck of a bargain, and it may be the only Office suite most people need (especially if you do more spreadsheets than template-based documents). But as a fully compatible Word equivalent…well, maybe that’s asking a lot, but the sheer unpredictability of what would and would not import correctly bothers me. A lot.

And if open source advocates say, “But that’s not it’s primary purpose!”…I’d agree. Note the first two sentences of the previous paragraph.

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