Ask LH: Am I Missing Out By Sticking With Open Source And Not Buying Microsoft Office?

Ask LH: Am I Missing Out By Sticking With Open Source And Not Buying Microsoft Office?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve been using LibreOffice and OpenOffice for some time now, and it has suited my needs just fine. I am curious about the supposed superiority of MS Office. I haven’t been able to find concrete answers as to why MS Office is better that LibreOffice and I was hoping you could clear this up for me.Best wishes, Sort of Confused

Dear Confused,

It’s normal for users of open source software to wonder from time to time if they’re missing out by not using the pricey, proprietary competition’s offering. In this case, it’s the mighty Microsoft and its Office suite versus the free twins OpenOffice and LibreOffice.

Mainly, Microsoft Office is glossy. Very glossy. With newer operating systems, cleaner interfaces, and a very design-driven tech world booming around us, it can be a bit rough to see how glossy Microsoft’s offering is compared to a rough-around-the-edges free app. When it comes down to it, the problem has always been a matter of gloss. Microsoft simply has more resources for designers to make Office look sleek and modern, and that pays off in the end — most people will choose it just because it looks nicer.

All that gloss doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better, though. When it comes down to it, both OpenOffice and LibreOffice can do, more or less, everything MS Office can do. There’s really only one exception, and that’s email. One of MS Office’s core apps is Outlook, and the free offerings just don’t have anything to match that. They do, however, have the rest of the open source community — which means you’ve got apps like Mozilla’s Thunderbird available. So, If you pull an outside app into the mix, the two sides are even again.

The look of MS Office may be nice, but it’s also tying in controls, settings, and other interface functions. Microsoft calls the interface “Fluent”, but most people refer to it as “ribbons”. It’s great for making a big suite of apps that all look alike, and look pretty, but it does have the side effect of confusing new users. People are accustomed to just looking for standard menus, and both of the free office suites still use standard menus. Their users are generally quite happy about that.

When it comes to support, you may have a cause for jealousy. Because MS Office is an expensive, corporate-backed piece of software, it’s got a massive support machine behind it, staffed by people trained to answer questions. The flip side to that is that Microsoft’s support machine is known for being convoluted, unhelpful, and difficult to navigate or contact.

OpenOffice and LibreOffice don’t have large support networks in place like that. They do, however, have communities. You can usually find the answer to your question by searching through each suite’s forums for the answer — or by just asking other users on those same forums.

When it really comes down to it, it’s still a matter of personal preference. All three will read and write MS Office formatted documents. All three can make and read spreadsheets and presentations. They can all handle images and special formatting for text. They’re all full-fledged office suites, one of them just costs a lot of money. Don’t let the glossy interface and large user base make you think you’re the oddball by not buying it. Free options get the job done, too.



  • “compared to a rough-around-the-edges free app” Sorry but there’s nothing rough around the edges about Libre or O.O, they both have quite well built work areas and are just as easy or easier to use than MS.O which is pretty much bloat-ware IMO..

  • First off, it’s more than just gloss. Office has a lot of functionality that the open source offerings are yet to approach: formatting, styles, version control, automation, merging are just a small number of examples.
    However, your comment “suited my needs” sums it up. If you have no need of the added functionality in Office, why spend the money. If open source suits your needs, then stick with it.
    You can always see what Office is like by downloading a trial version from Microsoft.

    • You are somewhat wrong in your statement there.

      While LibreOffice and may lack in version control, automation and merging (I don’t know for sure that they do lack there as they aren’t items I use in a word processor or spreadsheet) they most defiantly *do* *not* lack in formatting and styles.

      Having to use Microsoft Office at work, I find its styles system annoying and inconstant. Not to mention that it lacks feature that I have grown used to using in LibreOffice (that or they are just hidden somewhere that I am yet to discover).

      The main thing that appeals to me about styling and formatting in the open offerings is that they treat styles more like html+css treats styling (ie. as a method of grouping and/or labeling common elements) and less like a brush for applying a pre-defined format; which is the way the styles in Word feel to me.

      To conclude and summarise – There is very good, very strong formatting and style support in LibreOffice and, it just chooses to go about it in a different way to Microsoft word.

      • Office formatting options are built around the same kind of idea, that the styling relates to the structure of the document – it’s just the way the Ribbon presents it and it is commonly used is that it ends up being more like a broad brush. If you start with a styled template, you get the HTML+CSS effect you would with OO or LO.

      • It depends… both apps have some sort of styling mechanism. However MS Office 2007-on has all sorts of different formatting effects – soft shadows, reflection, glow, soft edges, bevel, etc. that as far as I know, LibreOffice just does not have or required some kind of crazy workaround.

  • As a Linux user, I’ve generally always favoured Open/Libre Offices (as they come standard with most distros), but lately, after working on group projects with Windows/OS X users, who are using MS Office, I’ve noticed Open/Libre Office has completely messed up the formatting of MS Word documents numerous times. I’m talking whole “contents” pages being unformatted just from opening then saving it under OO.

    I continue to use them for personal documents, and they work great! No problems whatsoever. But lately, I’ve realised MS Office 2007 is one of the few Windows Apps that runs perfectly under Wine 😉 So yeah, I’ve taken to using MS Word when working with MS Word users.

    Anyone else ever have similar formatting horrors between office apps?

    • Try uploading the doc to the online, “Windows Live” and save in a format that the free-ware stuff can recognise without formatting issues, not saying it will definitely solve the issue but it might! Having said that,given the cost of MS Office, there is no way on earth I would buy it to use in wine. If you’re happy to do so and have the money to purchase it, all well and good, but I got over MS Office years ago. 🙂

    • +1 for formatting. Noticed this on resume’s especially as you always post them online as .doc. Spent a few weeks looking for a solution but found nothing. Now CVs are done on my laptop with office installed. Just about everything else is handled in Open Office.

    • Yep. If I’m working on something at home (using Libre) that I want to take to uni or email to someone else, I need to factor in time for weird formatting issues. Usually it’s the appearance of random line breaks.
      I never had any problems with things sent between me and Libre users when I was using MS Word, though. So perhaps we’re missing something.

    • Yeah, I also have some formatting issues – although I often use complex formatting, but some simple things don’t come through properly either – even features that are supported. That said, most of my documents are docx etc, regular doc files tend to be less problematic

  • I’ve tried to use O.O a couple of times and while it’s fine for simple word processing. I found that it’s excel equivalent just really wasn’t up to par with the accessibility that MS excel has.

  • I generally prefer Open Source, but have stuck with MS Office because I like to customise and automate by writing VBA code for WORD and EXCEL. AFAIK, OpenOffice has nothing similar to VBA, for behind the scenes tweaking. Is that right? If not, I’ll change to OO like a shot.

  • what if we’re not talking about Word, how about things like Pivot tables in Excel? Especially when the rest of your team is working in MSOffice?

    The Question isn’t about whether there are free options out there that can do the basics, it’s about having choice to work with tools the way we want, and still work as part of a team. XML should have provided a platform independent format.

    As yet this is not possible between the various xxOffices.

  • I am still currently in the process of converting our mid-sized company from MS O to OOo and have come across a few little issues but nothing too major.

    The main issues is getting everyone switched at the same time. I’ve found that as long as everyone is using the same platform, no matter what format, then its smooth sailing.

    .DOC created in OOo seems to be fully compatible with Word or Writer. I haven’t seen any issues going that way, however .DOC 2003+ coming from Word to Writer has a few issues with tables and spacing but generally simple fixes.

    Pivot tables and macros are an issue in Calc when using established XLS documents, but all the functionality is there in Calc, just done in a slightly different way. Saving from Calc in XLS or ODS I haven’t had any problems opening them in Excel (though to be honest I don’t use pivot tables or Macros).

    There are a few situations where Word / Excel will ‘fix’ problems with user input or formatting automatically, whereas Writer and Calc seem to take it more as is.

    This is coming from someone who wanted to stay with MS O and get a volume license so I would say I’m biased the other way if at all.

    Basically though the ONLY problems I have seen in my research and experience are compatibility problems (users still need to have compatibility with MS and OO), not problems with missing functionality or technical issues.

    If the whole world was to switch to ODT and ODS today I don’t believe there would be that much lacking….

    As a side note, deployment is a MAJOR downfall of OO, it is shockingly difficult trying to disable all the registration screens, welcome messages and default filetypes etc whereas MS O is a dream to deploy (mostly) with established tools for almost full customisation.

  • I used OO exclusively for a couple of years on my main PC and it was fine for my needs – with one exception. I am now using OL at a client’s site on a PC dedicated to my development and testing, and again it’s fine.

    HOWEVER!!! As soon as I needed to exchange Word and Excel files with others things quickly deteriorated. A year and a half ago I had to buy MS Office 2007 not because I liked it or because it’s so wonderful but because it is virtually impossible to guarantee the clean exchange of documents, even after lots of mucking around with formats and conversions. I simply couldn’t risk having garbage show up on a client’s screen.

    The cause is almost always the exception I mentioned above. Primarily, Open Source software cannot handle fonts and typefaces as well as MS, which owns or exchanges some crucial patents in this area (ClearType, hinting, rendering etc.) and has spent huge sums to get it more or less right.
    This means that page layouts often cannot be duplicated across platforms making documernt exchange very hazardous.

    I have also found that independent of this problem, Open Source software is often not very good at handling odd or complicated typeface situations e.g. cursive faces, very large type, complex novelty faces etc. but I could live with theses problems and perhaps find ways around them.

    I’m sorry to be so verbose but this is quite an annoying subject for me as I am not a great of
    MS and would rather use the free tools which are perfectly adequate for most users.

  • A quick comparison of vs MS Office :

    Writer is far better than Word.
    Excel is better than Calc.
    Powerpoint is far better than Impress.
    Access is far better than Base.

    @rob1n : OOo is very scriptable, with Python, with Java, with C++ or with the in-application powerful Basic.

  • I use OO at home and Office 2010 at work, both on Windows 7. (I’ve used OO on Linux too but the majority of time it’s been my Win7 PCs that get use).

    Office 2010 just knocks spots of OO. It’s faster loading, so when I want to quickly tally some figures I rely on Office 2010, whilst at home I now have a shortcut to Google Docs.

    Office 2010 makes it much easier to make great looking documents. I always found the OO approach to styles clunky: too close to HTML to be truly friendly whilst it didn’t offer nearly the same control as I’d get hand-coding HTML.

    Excel 2010 brings a range of very good features, with the inline help whilst building functions much better, a much better range of colours (not just glossy but the choice makes it much easier to differentiate data sets — somthing I spent too much time tweaking in previous spreadsheet programmes) and the conditional formatting offering genuine innovation in data presentation.

    Powerpoint. Meh. Still does largely the same thing. Once it lets me make TED style presentation I’ll get excited. Use it most days though.

    OneNote, Infopath, Access and the rest? Nice but not in my daily workflow. Outlook? Much better than before but still room for improvement (and no direct competitor).

    The other BIG difference is that Office 2010 has fantastic integration with Sharepoint and Office 365. The former is great at work, whilst the latter, when combined with my points above, might make me switch from by current choice of OO and Google Docs.

    Basically, spend some time with Office 2010 and you’ll have to have a very good reason to go back.

  • Confused, the key phrase of yours in my opinion is “suited my needs just fine.” Enough said, continue using LibreOffice. As has been mentioned, if you want to get a feel for MS, download the trial.

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