Monday, January 19, 2009

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 10: An Open Office Test Drive

Linux Monday: An Open Office Test Drive

For the next couple of Linux Monday posts, I'll be testing out my legacy Microsoft Office files in Open Office, Linux world's main alternative. This is, by necessity, a one-way test. Files in Microsoft Office formats (.doc, .xls, .ppt) can be opened in Open Office; the open source community recognizes the need. But Microsoft doesn't want to admit that there are alternatives, and Open Office .odt format files won't open in Microsoft Office.

If you're starting from scratch, it's a great system. But if you've already got files that you've built over the years, you may see some changes. And unfortunately, those aren't all good news.

You can do most of your own Open Office test driving within Windows (back your stuff up first). The Windows install works pretty much like any other Windows install. It's also packaged with several Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu, so you can try it from a live CD.

PowerPoint vs. Open Office Impress

There's way way way too many bad PowerPoint presentations out there, but that's about users not knowing how to effectively use visual aids for public speaking, rather than an inherent weakness of the software.

I checked out a 50-slide presentation with text, graphs, and photos, and Impress was almost indistinguishable from Power Point. My typical MO is to switch to slide show mode and use the space bar to advance, and that was identical.

I also started a new presentation from scratch: a very large slide show of photos, with occasional text captions. (Locals: You can catch it tomorrow night at the Johnson County Dems' inauguration party. 6 PM, the Mill.) It started out as a smooth experience; the tools and menus were intuitive and similar and I never had to resort to Help.

But once the file size got up over about 200 Mb, it opened very, very slowly, and I finished some of my editing in Power Point. I found out that photo sizing worked more smoothly in Open Office, as it defaulted my photos to the sixe of the slide while in Power Point I had to manually resize my big ones. Power Point also made the fonts look flaky when I first opened the show, but then they seemed to fix themselves.

After burning to CDs (we're selling copies as a fundraiser) I was able to open and display the show in the intended fashion in both operating systems. Not bad overall. Maybe I was pushing the extremes with a 300 Mb presentation of 300 photos, but that was the use I needed. I'd have to play with it more to see if that's a consistent problem.

Excel vs. Open Office Calc

In government accounting, we live in Excel. I've used it for number crunching, of course, but also for visual displays, web publishing, mail merges, and as a lite pseudo-database.

I swap my simple personal checkbook back and forth between Excel and Open Office's Calc constantly with no ill effects. The look and feel are almost the same. Rows are still numbers, columns are still letters, the toolbars are intuitive. My multiple tabs for checking, car loan, and credit card are all there. Ctrl-c to cut and ctrl-v to paste have worked everywhere I've tried them in Linux, except for the terminal, but a couple of my pet keyboard shortcuts don't work like ctrl-” to copy the cell above and ctrl-: for current date.

Moving up the food chain and into more complex sheets, my formulas and linked cells were good. I use conditional formatting a lot. If, for example, X is greater than Y, I can make the text for X bold and colored. When I opened an Excel sheet, my conditional formatting was preserved. The tools for manipulating the condition formulas are similar, but figuring out how to set the formats themselves was confusing.

A lot of people use Excel as a .dbf file reader. My first attempt in Calc, with a 90,000 record file, locked me up. On the second try, my interface went away and I thought I'd failed, but about 10 minutes later the data appeared. In the process I learned that Calc has the same 65,536 row limit as Excel. The same limit appeared when I opened a .csv comma-separated file in Calc, but that opened more smoothly than the .dbf.

When I ran an Excel file that was designed to publish one tab as a web page, Calc included other tabs of the workbook that were meant to stay under the hood and behind the scenes.

My conversion issues were the greatest with macros and graphs. Some of my graphs converted fine. Others were accurate but had layout changes. One line graph, tracking a raw total across time, flipped itself around so that the newest date was on the left instead of the right. And a percentage across time line graph was unrecognizable. The group labels in the legends all changed, too. On the other had, a pie chart translated perfectly.

Only my simplest Excel macro, with one step to refresh data, worked, and even then the Easy button I made for it didn't work and I had to use the macro menu. For more complex macros, the button started the macro, but then the macro itself crashed.

With enough time and effort, I'm sure I could figure all these things out. But, thinking like a lazy bureaucrat for a moment to show you what we're up against: if I don't change, I don't have to.

Or do I?

You're Not Safe Even If You Stay In Microsoft World

I hate to be the bearer of this not perfect news. But this is part of what open source advocates are faced with. Open source is a bold step for an organization or even an individual. The payoff is in the future, but the ripple effect through the legacy is now, and that's a lot of work for both the IT people and the end users.

But even if you stay with the familiar, change may be forced on you. I've been wrestling for way too long at work, with little success, with a set of Word Macros. I wrote the early version 15 or so years ago in Word for Windows 3.1 or something, and they survived up through Office 97. But in Office 2003, they fail, and attempts to revise have been futile. I expect that eventually they'll need a from-scratch rewrite.

Which begs the question that may prove most persuasive: if you're rewriting the legacy from scratch anyway, what's the point of staying in Microsoft World?

Next Week: More MS Office apps, more tests.

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