Saturday, October 27, 2007

Why OpenOffice is Better than MS Office

I have become bored with my Operating System (Windows this time) once more and have shifted to Ubuntu 7.10 'Gutsy Gibbon' a couple of days ago. Linux has come a long way since its command line days and today Ubuntu has made it work entirely on clicks and drags just like Microsoft's Windows. It is still far from usable for the Stupid User but at least it has reached a level where an educated, intelligent person with enough time and inclination can learn to use it and actually do use it for their day-to-day work.

The only thing that makes me stay on Windows is MS Office (apart from other software that runs only on windows). I think Office is Windows' killer-app.

MS Word

Why is MS Office Better?

What makes MS Office much better than any of it's Open Source counterparts? The Zeroth thing is that MS Office just came earlier. There were no decent Open Source couterparts for a long time.

The first thing, really, is the user interface. MS has always designed good user interfaces for office. Things are WYSIWYG which means that they can be easily learnt and used. Most office applications on other platforms have just copied Microsoft's interface ideas. OpenOffice 2.3, for example, very consciously tries to imitate MS Office 2003. This is contrary to desktop interfaces and applications for Gnome or KDE which have come up with their own ideas which are absolutely fabulous and are being copied by Microsoft. (Firefox is one example for web browsers. Internet Explorer 7.0 is a very shabby copy of Firefox.) However, Microsoft has once again done wonders with Offie 2007's 'ribbon' interface.

The second thing is inter-operability. I still remeber the time when I could not paste text from OpenOffice into the Blogger post editor in Firefox. In MS Office you can copy-paste and drag-drop anything from anywhere to anywhere. It just works. OpenOffice is not really all that great in this respect.

If Open Source wishes to win this office app war then it needs to come us with radical user interface designs just like they have in other areas. The traditional linux strategy has been to give the users every option possible which they can configure as they please. This does not work if you are targeting a user segment that does not really care much (or cannot be expected to care much) about how things function at the backend. Like the Gnome design guidelines say, things have to just work for such users.

OpenOffice Writer

Why MS Office Sucks

MS Office sucks because as against it's Linux counterparts, it is Closed Source. It has been seen time and again that the Microsoft Model of writing software does not work. What Microsoft does is that it shuts a lot of programmers up in their posh cabins. Then it feeds them with lots of corporate bullshit. They are then made to write lots of software which is shipped to users. The users themselves are seldom asked what they want. Neither is the programmer ever told what the user wants. They are told what the marketing people think the users want. And once the software gets written, there is no way to change it in any major way.

Just today I read about this bug in MS Excel 2007. Try doing the following multiplication in Excel 2007 – 850 * 77.1. Excel gives the answer 10000 instead of the correct answer 65535. A ten year old with paper-and-pencil could do better than that! Take another example. The new xlsx format is an XML based format. This means that everything is written out to a file in ASCII text that you can I can read. This means that any number that I enter in Excel should get written onto the disk just as I've entered it. But no! Excel actually converts it to binary first, then back to ASCII and then writes it in the file. Thus, numbers that don't have a perfect binary representations suffer from round-off errors. I mean, that's insane. Even a school kid would not program anything that way!!

This is shameful for a company that is the worlds biggest. It is shameful for a world that made the CEO of this company the richest man in the world. And it is shameful for those programmers who designed the $400 MS Office.

Open Source on the other hand does not work this way. Everything is open. It is tested by thousands of users. Bugs and feature requests get reported pronto. The developers actually get to hear what the people want and that is what they make. That is why Firefox is the most user friendly web browser ever. And it is not as if this model cannot be corporatized. Google has done it. They take constant feedback from users and make what the users want. Orkut, for example, is doling out feature after feature that we have always wished we'd had. Open Source softwares come up with update every week. As far as I know, Microsoft till date hasn't patched their Excel bug.

If it were up to me, I'd linuxify the entire world.

PS: This post was written using OpenOffice Writer and posted using Mozilla Firefox. :) Switch to both if you haven't already.


  1. The users themselves are seldom asked what they want. Neither is the programmer ever told what the user wants. They are told what the marketing people think the users want.

    As an ex-Office guy, I can tell you with confidence this is wrong. Not only did we spend time in people's offices watching them work, have support and customer service send us top support issues and feature wishes, we put out a version (with beta sites' consent) which generated reams of recorded data about what users did with the app.

    The Excel bug is rare and has to do with floating point errors (explanation here).

    Your confidence in open source is laudable, but look at the products: Ubuntu is 2 generations behind Vista in polish, needs a target to chase and clone, and feels like a low-rent version of XP.

    Firefox is not the nicest browser out there, it's Maxthon. And this Chinese startup has done a lot with a hell of a lot less money than Firefox's "grassroots" $65M/year from MS' competitor Google.

    There are plenty of problems with MS, but these aren't it.

  2. @ Anonymous - Thanks for speaking up. I myself am a big fan of MS Office, trust me. I would not recommend anyone to use OpenOffice at all. The reasons that I recommend open source are not based on usability.

    I still don't agree with you on comparison of XP/Vista with linux. Vista, for a normal user is just a polished up version of XP and XP itself lacks a huge range of features that Ubuntu/KDE can offer.

    If MS wasn't so closed about its development strategies perhaps all of us would be less skeptic.