Why I may never install Office for Mac again

Summary:With Office for Mac in limbo and Apple continuing to spoil Pages for the rest of us, I took a risk installing OpenOffice on a newly configured Mac – and may never look back.

Old habits definitely do die hard, which is probably why I have dutifully pulled out the Microsoft Office for Mac (OfM) install disk every time I've reformatted or upgraded one of the many Macs I've set up and kept running over the years.

When recently setting up a new iMac with Mavericks and I couldn't locate that OfM install disk, however, an act of desperation turned into a new modus operandi after I realised that our open-source allies have made the world's most widely used office suite nearly irrelevant.

Rusty-Nail. CC BY-SA 3.0 Herzi Pinki (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gartlm%C3%BChle,_Gresten_04_-_rusty_nail.jpg)
Microsoft Office may be rusted onto the corporate office worker's psyche, but many Mac users will find OpenOffice just as capable. CC BY-SA 3.0 Herzi Pinki.

There has been a lot of movement in the office-suite market of late, what with Apple releasing Pages, Keynote and Numbers for free; Google Docs popular but still outage-prone ; and Microsoft's Office 365 gaining momentum  even as the company puts free versions of Office in the cloud  to varying effect.

While cloud-based alternatives are getting better all the time, I'm a traditionalist who has used local productivity applications since the days of Wordstar. So, as you can imagine, when I set up a new computer I like to have a writing tool that works whether I'm online or not.

Previous versions of iWork had promise as an alternative, but I have a long-running feud with Apple over iWork for one simple reason: Apple refuses to give it the ability to simply load and save files in Word's .DOC format.

That's right: the only way to handle documents in Pages is by saving your working documents as .pages files – which are, inexplicably, often 10 or more times larger than their Word .DOC equivalent – and then exporting .DOC versions as and when you need them.

If you work with a lot of documents, the double-handling rapidly grates on you. I was hoping to standardise on Pages after hearing about Apple's move to make it free, but Apple is still insisting that we use its own file format to save documents.

Little wonder the business community has been increasingly abandoning Pages and iWork : in the real world – the business world outside Apple's closed-garden ecosystem –absolutely nobody uses the .pages format. Apple's determination to force it down our throats has made its latest iWork iteration less of an Office killer and something more resembling TextEdit on steroids.

At any rate, with Pages out of the question and Office nowhere to be found, I took a chance and revisited the open-source equivalent, OpenOffice, to see if it might allow me to maintain my workflow based on the frequent loading, editing and saving of .DOC files.

OpenOffice has been around for some time, but despite heroic efforts by its developers it has struggled to gain a massive following mainly because Microsoft Office is so broadly available. Business users know Office and have it available to them as a matter of course, while home users probably get it through student bundles or the like.

OpenOffice-1
OpenOffice 4.0 works like Word but looks like Pages. Screenshot: David Braue

Mac users, however, have a different decision set. Despite its name, Office for Mac is a rather different productivity suite than Office for Windows – with a different interface and a different feature set. These differences are often significant: it was only with the latest version, for example, that the Mac version of Office was given Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) scripting capabilities after years of conspicuous absence.

Rumour has it that the next version of Office for Mac will bow early next year – prompting many to upgrade, no doubt, even as the memory of now-unsupported Office 2008  fades. But if you can't wait that long – or, like me, you find yourself without an OfM install disk – it's time to give OpenOffice another look.

I had tried it a few versions ago but found it woefully underfeatured as a replacement for OfM. But with its latest iteration (v4.0) , OpenOffice is not only extremely quick and easy to use; thanks to ongoing improvements and the contribution of a large volume of code from IBM's Symphony, it's compatible and close enough to Office that you may not even notice you're in the new environment.

Certainly, for someone with very specific requirements – all I need to do is be able to edit documents, save and send .DOC files, and use tools like the highlighter and word counts – OpenOffice ticks all the boxes.

I have found it to be a simple-to-use, capable alternative to Word that costs nothing and offers more than enough features and flexibility that it probably does everything you need it to. It even has Pages' contextual sidebars.

If you have several Macs in the family, this may make OpenOffice not only curious but absolutely compelling because of its much lower cost.

Sure, I've made a few changes: for example, using Mac OS X's application-specific keystrokes I have set up a few keyboard shortcuts for functions like Format Paragraph (Shift-Command-M) and Word Count (if you don't know how to do this, go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Application Shortcuts, then click +, choose your application, enter the unique text of the menu item you want the keystroke to start, and then the keystroke you want to use).

Play around with it and you'll find that the latest OpenOffice gives you more than enough room to stretch your arms and get to work. The spreadsheet and presentation modules are so similar to Excel and PowerPoint – the Mac versions, at least – that you may never know you're not using the real thing.

This is not meant to be a primer on OpenOffice, as much as a reminder that it is still out there, and in its latest iteration it is better than ever.

That may be good news for its authors, since figures suggest that OpenOffice is not exactly burning up the charts; a recent Forrester survey suggested  that only 6 percent of companies offer their employees an alternative to Microsoft Office.

As I mentioned earlier, favourable enterprise licensing terms mean most people don't have any need for OpenOffice; recent figures suggest 16 percent of businesses will upgrade to Office 2013 within a year and 20 percent more in the long term.

This is great news for Microsoft and Windows users. But if you're a Mac user who can't or won't buy OfM – or are just looking for an easier and faster productivity option – give it a try. You may find, like I did, that the days of installing massive, monolithic applications are simply over.

What do you think? Have you switched to OpenOffice? Did you try it and discover it was underpowered for your needs? Or am I already late to the party?

Topics: Open Source, Apple, Apps, Bring Your Own Device, Enterprise Software, Software

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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