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Anybody But Microsoft

Diving into OpenOffice and Linux

By James E. Gaskin, Network World
August 31, 2006 11:25 AM ET
James Gaskin

Many readers tell me they're avoiding Microsoft. Some object to the cost, some to the security problems, and many are appalled at Microsoft's abuse of good customers with paperwork problems through the Bully Software Alliance. So today the information is for the Anybody But Microsoft (ABM) crowd, and others who are unaware how much progress has been made in the last two years on alternative operating systems and applications.

Following the old 80/20 rule, we know that four of five users never touch advanced features in application or operating system software. I believe at least 80% of Microsoft Word customers would be perfectly happy with Microsoft's free accessory word processor WordPad if it included spell checking.

As a test, when I rebuilt my personal system after a horrific war between nVidia and Microsoft drivers, I installed OpenOffice 2.0 rather than Microsoft Office. Could it do everything I needed, or would I have to break down and reinstall Microsoft Office?

So far, so good for OpenOffice. I've edited book length manuscript Word files using OpenOffice Writer, read and modified PowerPoint presentations with OpenOffice Impress, and massaged Excel-created spreadsheets in OpenOffice Calc. I've even sent documents created in or modified by OpenOffice programs to unsuspecting fellow PTA members (none of whom can be called technically savvy) with no problems. They all used the files just like any other files.

Since I spend my day torturing text, I use OpenOffice Writer the most. The biggest feature Microsoft Word has that I wish OpenOffice Writer had is the split document window. This allows you to separate a document and scroll the two portions independently. I tend to put my notes at the bottom of the document and write in the top window. Another feature I miss is the ability to change blocks of text into Title Case, because OpenOffice only converts text to upper or lower case.

The features I appreciate in OpenOffice includes lack of weird characters when I cut and paste text from OpenOffice Writer to an HTML editor. Do that with Microsoft Word and you spend time finding and fixing all the bizarre smart quotes and the like that don't transfer. I also like the fact that OpenOffice Writer's word count function (it's important to track the number of words for publications) gives word count numbers for both the highlighted block of text and the full document, while Microsoft Word only shows the count of the selected text or full document.

One feature of OpenOffice makes me laugh at the poor design of Microsoft Office. Have you ever tried to open a file in Word and accidentally clicked an Excel spreadsheet instead? In Microsoft Office, the file opens as garbage characters inside of Word. OpenOffice does it right and starts OpenOffice Calc to properly handle the spreadsheet.

If you don't want an entire office suite but need a good writing application, try AbiWord. This open source word processor handles WordPerfect file formats (which Microsoft Word doesn't) and also handles documents with 100,000 words with no problem (Windows, Linux, and Mac versions available).

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