Four months on, I'm still not using Office for Mac

Four months after I swore off Office for Mac in favour of Apache OpenOffice, I'm happy to say that the change has stuck. OpenOffice may not have everything Office power users need, but for the other 99 percent it's capable, reliable, and more compatible with Word than even Apple's Pages.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

It's been over four months since I publicly announced my move away from a reliance on Office for Mac, that bland and sort-of-reliable office suite that Microsoft has long run as a hobbyist project for a devoted but marginalised team of Mac developers.

The massive response to that piece suggested to me that I wasn't the only one who had become disenchanted with an office suite with a fluid feature set, outdated interface and whose biggest benefit was that its document compatibility was mostly as good as that of the Windows version.


Word for Mac's compatibility was sure better than Pages, Apple's attempt to make a page-layout program behave like a word processor – and to impose the bloated and unsupported .pages file format on the world. It's a gesture of sheer contempt for reality and it is one of the main reasons I have repeatedly declined to shift my word-heavy working patterns to Pages.

I simply cannot justify having to export a separate .DOC file every time I want to send someone a Word file – which is, I'm sorry to tell you folks in Cupertino, every single freaking day of my life.

While I initially turned to OpenOffice as a freely available alternative when I couldn't locate my Office for Mac install disks, the reasons I've stayed with it revolve around reliability and compatibility.

In the years that I was using Word for Mac, crashes were a monthly occurrence and the very act of cutting and pasting even a simple line of text could at any time send Word into a death spiral.

Given that Microsoft never got around to implementing file-recovery that's anywhere near as good as that found in the Windows version, these inexplicable and repeated crashes were major interruptions to my workflow and resulted in lost work on numerous occasions. When your ability to make a living depends on a reliable word processor, this is understandably problematic.

OpenOffice is now loaded on both my main work iMac and my portable MacBook Pro, using Microsoft Word's .DOC format to ensure broad compatibility no matter what I do with my documents.

OpenOffice runs smoothly, reliably, and consistently. It is quick, robust, and capable of running on a laptop for months at time without corrupting itself or requiring a restart. It handles words, numbers and images well and does everything I need, when I need it to. No fuss, no muss.

Here's the real kicker: Word compatibility in OpenOffice is so good that Apple should be ashamed of itself. On numerous occasions, OpenOffice has loaded complex Word documents with a higher degree of fidelity than Pages: form boxes that come out in strange shapes and disjointed lines in Pages, for example, are correctly and beautifully joined in OpenOffice. Shading works well. There are none of Pages' ubiquitous warnings about certain fonts not being available.

On numerous occasions, OpenOffice has loaded complex Word documents with a higher degree of fidelity than Pages: form boxes that come out in strange shapes and disjointed lines in Pages, for example, are correctly and beautifully joined in OpenOffice.

I've found similar excellence in the spreadsheet and presentation functionality in the office suite, which is snappy and capable for my needs. I will also readily admit that your needs from Excel and PowerPoint may be far more complicated than mine, which rarely extend beyond organising numbers in rows and columns, and totalling them.

Sure, OpenOffice has its problems, but they are generally small and easy to work around. Command-A, for example, does not work in file-save or any other file-selection dialogue. Writer's the default font doesn't display smart quotes correctly and adds trailing and leading space; I've switched to Arial and all is good. The Track Changes interface could be prettier. Fonts in loaded PowerPoint documents sometimes look different than you would expect.

These are small things, but on the whole OpenOffice has been a big step up – for my needs – from could-crash-at-any-second Word for Mac. I have settled into it nicely, and none of the people I've sent OpenOffice-generated .DOC files has complained about having any issues at all. It has become part of the furniture.

That said, just because it works for me doesn't mean it will do the same for you. Power users are going to struggle to transfer their detailed Office workflows to OpenOffice or any other platform. That said, they can't switch those processes to Microsoft's cloud-based Office, Office for iPad, or any other office suite either. Customisation of this type simply isn't readily portable.

Is it ready for large-scale enterprise use? Not necessarily; here, again, the growing ecosystem Microsoft is building around Office is likely to make it more appealing for many; OpenOffice is still heartily a desktop product and doesn't aspire to be anything else.

I obviously cannot speak as to the reliability and relevance of the upcoming update to Office for Mac. However, for now OpenOffice is a surprisingly capable, unobtrusive and likeable office suite that has cured me of any desire to load Office for Mac. Those put off by experiences with previous versions, may well find it's worth another look.

What has been your experience with OpenOffice? Have you switched permanently? Or did you give up on it after having less success than I did?

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