Free Alternatives to Everyday Software

Office Software

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This video discusses the challenges of not only migrating to open source productivity apps, but also collaborating with others who continue to use proprietary office software.


  • Productivity
  • word processing
  • spreadsheet
  • presentation
  • LibreOffice
  • Collabora
  • ODF

About this video

Karl Beecher
First online
04 December 2019
Online ISBN
Copyright information
© Karl Beecher 2019

Video Transcript

Karl Beecher: Office Software describes the basic productivity applications of word processing, spreadsheets and presentation programs. The landscape of Office Software is a bit complicated, so let’s explain it a little first.

In the 1990, as much of the world had standardized on the Microsoft Office Suite of applications. The file formats it used were based on proprietary standards controlled by Microsoft. Open source Office suites had little success pushing their own file formats and many added support for Microsoft for that. They did this by the tricky process of reverse engineering. As a result, support for Microsoft’s older standards like DOC, XLS, PPT is sometimes uneven across open source office suites. In my own experience, I find that both basic functionality works fine, but the more complex documents structure becomes as you layer on things like tables, numbered headings, multilevel bullet lists, and so on, the more discrepancies occur. Appearance can also be an issue. A presentation created in PowerPoint might not look exactly the same in LibreOffice Impress.

So just to demonstrate that one we’re going to do is show you the creation of a PowerPoint using Microsoft PowerPoint and then opening it with LibreOffice. So what I have here is two slides. The first slide, I’ve created already as you can see, and it has a title, it has a bullet list, the picture this being the Internet. It’s a cat and the design is pretty simple, little box there and some, some shading in the background. What you can do is open the files, download the file. You can have it download it as a PowerPoint file, Microsoft PowerPoint, or as Open Document Format, which is the preferred LibreOffice format. Let’s just go ahead and download a copy of the PowerPoint file. I’m going to open it with LibreOffice Impress, which is the LibreOffice equivalent of PowerPoint. So here we are in Impress, and as you can see, the presentation opened up pretty good, no real problems there. Everything is as it should be.

So let’s go back to PowerPoint again and download this first slide again, but instead do it as ODP. This is the format that is going to be converted from PowerPoint’s preferred format into ODP. I’m going to open it again with Impress. Here we are in Impress and it looks okay, no real problems except the design is sort of suffered a little bit. This red box, which is part of the designer gone missing, but otherwise, okay.

Let’s go back to PowerPoint again. I have a second slide here which is slightly more complex. Got a title, few text boxes floating around and picture and a table. Not too complex, but it’s got some merge cells there. Again, I’m going to download this. First of all, it’s done. It’s going to be downloaded as a PowerPoint. I’m gonna open the PowerPoint version in LibreOffice. Again, oh, sorry. Here’s the slide, the second slide. Again, everything looks pretty good. So LibreOffice has done a good job in reading PowerPoint files. So let’s go back to the PowerPoint application and download it again, but this time, we’re gonna download it as ODP. So it’s going to be downloaded as the open documents version of a presentation. Again, open it with Impress. In the second slide, and now I see some problems. So the text boxes and the image a pretty much okay. Design suffered again. This red box here is not there, but the table looks a little bit messy. So you’d have to fix that table if you wanted to use this file.

In the mid-2000s, Oasis, a nonprofit consortium of technology companies focused on the creation of open standards, created an open standard for productivity software. They call it the Open Document Format or ODF. This standard was taken up by a wider range of open source office suites and became their preferred format. Soon after, Microsoft brought out their own standard called Open Office XML or OOXML during a contentious standardization process. And the standard was criticized for being overly long, complex and difficult to support. You can tell the difference between Microsoft’s old formats and they’re new ones by the file extension. File stored using the newer open format, have an X on the end. So an older word file would end in .doc. And the newer one would end in .docx. Nevertheless, Microsoft has added support for both OOXML and ODF to their office suite. Many open source suites in turn support OOXML.

So in theory, move to an open source office suite should present a few problems for everyday usage. Your new open source suite should be able to convert your files to its preferred ODF format. However, there’s not quite the case in practice. Support for OOXML in open source office applications like LibreOffice is still not 100 percent. You might be prepared to convert your files and do any necessary cleaning up on them but keep in mind whether you’re going to be exchanging or collaborating on documents with office might be using a different format.

In recent years, this worry about sending files back and forth has been eased some more by the release of online office suites. Collaboration on a document who is no longer a case of emailing DOC files to each other. You can share access to a document or even write together in real time. You might never even handle a file. In this case, who cares in what format the file is stored. Nevertheless, keep in mind that you might want in future to switch from one online suite to another and that will involve a migration of data. Something that’s likely to go easier without conversion between file formats. Also, keep in mind that some choices of online office suite are proprietary like Google Docs and Office 365, and these all have their usual downsides of proprietary software like you can’t properly inspect the code. You can’t fix bugs itself, you can’t incorporate your own features and so on.

Open source alternatives are available. LibreOffice Online is unsurprisingly an online version of LibreOffice. Its open source nature makes it very flexible as well as being available as a product in its own right, others have taken it and integrated it into customize applications of their own. For example, LibreOffice Online forms the basis of Collabora Online, a cloud-based productivity suite. It also adds office suite capability to an open source file sharing product like Nextcloud. And speaking of file sharing, in the next segment we looked at the file sharing landscape and explore the open source alternatives available.