David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

OpenOffice: One Strike and You’re Out?

You want to know why people use Microsoft products? I present to you Exhibit A.

The new Sony laptop I’ve been bragging about came without a licensed version of Microsoft Word. Sony included a trial version of Office 2007 Student and Home and a copy of Microsoft Works. So I figured I’d give OpenOffice another try after having a few bad experiences with version 1.

OpenOffice.orgAnd as far as functionality goes, I like OpenOffice 2.1. It’s got a nice, clean, consistent interface across programs. Writer includes just about all of the features I’m likely to want or need from MS Word, and a few conveniences that Word lacks. (How nice it is to choose which custom dictionary you want to add unrecognized words to straight from the right-click menu.) It reads and writes Word documents pretty seamlessly, and although it crashes a little too often for my tastes, it always seemed to recover gracefully so I could pick up right where I left off.

Until Monday.

On Monday, OpenOffice Writer corrupted Chapter 38 of MultiReal. Corrupted it good. The file won’t open any longer. No file recovery option. When I look at it in Windows Explorer, it’s mysteriously shrunken in size by about 25K. When I open the file in Notepad or use one of the gazillion corrupted file recovery utilities out there on the Internet, I can still see amidst all the gobbledygook about 7 pages out of the original 12. For whatever reason, it seems like Writer truncated the file at that point.

Between the recoverable text from Notepad and old versions of the document, I was able to cobble together most of Chapter 38 again. And considering that I had just (re)written that missing page a few hours earlier, I think I’ve been able to reconstruct most of what I’ve lost. I suppose I could have downloaded a hex editor that would let me scour the raw data on the hard drive for those missing paragraphs, which are probably still floating on the hard disk somewhere.

But my confidence in OpenOffice has now been shaken, possibly for good. How do I know that Writer didn’t corrupt other documents that I wasn’t just working on? How do I know it’s not going to mess up the next chapter I open? I can’t afford that kind of uncertainty. I can’t afford to lose another three hours trying to recover the next mess.

Is Microsoft Word perfect? Hell, no. It’s bloated, it’s a resource hog, it’s got usability problems, and I’m not sure how I feel about the whole Ribbon concept MS has adopted in its 2007 version. Plus it’s a big fat target for every malicious hacker on the planet. But I can’t remember the last time Microsoft Word corrupted a file to the point that it was unrecoverable. Perhaps sometime two versions back when I was using Office XP. Yet it’s happened after only a month using OpenOffice.

I’m not ruling out the possibility that my Diskeeper or McAfee Security Suite caused this. Perhaps the laptop got nudged while it was writing to the hard drive, or maybe something funky happened when I closed the lid and put it into Sleep mode. But what are the chances that these things would only corrupt the last file I was working on, out of all the hundreds of thousands of files on the system? I can’t rule out that I might just have been unlucky, and I know this kind of thing happens in Microsoft Office too every once in a blue moon.

This whole episode has brought home to me the fact that the most important factor for any piece of software is the Hippocratic factor: first, do no harm. I don’t care how smooth and pimped-out a ride your car is; if it routinely leaves you stranded in the middle of nowhere, it’s useless. (Incidentally, I also got stranded in the middle of nowhere by my Honda this past weekend, but that’s a different story.) (Okay, so Chevy Chase, MD isn’t exactly the middle of nowhere. But I lost another few hours of writing time regardless.)

Windows Vista User Account ControlNow there are many ways in which a piece of software can be said to do you “harm.” You might argue, with some justification, that Windows Vista’s irritating User Account Control does harm by unnecessarily wasting your time. You might argue that the full MS Office installation loads your PC with crap that slows things down and wastes resources. If you pass a lot of macro-laden documents back and forth, you could argue that leaky MS Word security does your business a lot of harm.

But I’ve found far too often that open-source alternatives to Microsoft desktop programs turn out to be unwieldy, unstable, and in some cases, just plain unusable. OpenOffice is buggy. GAIM, the Gimp, and Eclipse crash constantly. Mozilla Thunderbird might be the most unreliable piece of software on the planet (although I will admit that I haven’t tried Thunderbird 2.1, which is supposed to be pretty good). Linux is famous for its stability — presuming you can find all the drivers to get everything working properly. But then again, despite what the Slashdot crowd tells you, Windows very rarely crashes, and the Blue Screen of Death only crops up when you’re using really kooky hardware. Firefox seems to be just about the only exception to the rule when it comes to common desktop applications.

I’ve said it before: Microsoft programs are cheap. $130 on Amazon will buy you a 3-computer license for the Home and Student version of Office 2007, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. It’s a small price to pay for insurance against losing your work.

I want to use open-source software. I really do. But most of the time, I get that same feeling you get when you drink plain-wrap cola and try to convince yourself that it’s just as good as regular Coke. It’s cheaper, sure, and it doesn’t put money in the pockets of a faceless megacorporation that tramples on the little guy and blah blah blah. But there’s a reason people pay that extra 40 cents for a six-pack of Coke at the supermarket, and you can’t blame it all on them being mindless capitalist lemmings.

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  1. Joyce Reynolds-Ward on August 1, 2007 at 10:42 am  Chain link

    I ran into a similar issue with my son’s Open Office software when I borrowed his laptop on a trip. Only this time it gimmuxed my chapter so that each page alternated landscape/portrait layout.

    I was not amused, needless to say.

    And the Mac is running Office for Mac (I do not not not want to run Vista, which is why I went Mac). It actually runs better than the version on my desktop (running Windows 2000, which I think makes it Office 2003).

    From what the son says, you don’t encounter these problems if you start the bleeping document in Open Office. But after the one experience, I’m not really up for experimentation.

  2. Mary Robinette Kowal on August 1, 2007 at 11:00 am  Chain link

    Wow. Yeah that would scare me off too. I’ve been using Open Office exclusively for years and haven’t had it do anything like that to me. That sucks.

  3. Robert on August 1, 2007 at 11:05 am  Chain link

    The problem isn’t Open Source, Open Office, or Microsoft Word for that matter — the problem is using a document type that can be so easily corrupted.

    I’ve found working in plain text or at most RTF for the vast majority of purposes works great. Once more formal document formatting is required, which normally isn’t until you’re done writing, you can import it into any program you like to tidy up the margins and all the rest of the necessities before printing.

    An added benefit is not having to worry whether the Open Office or Microsoft equivalent in 5 or 10 years will be able to read your novel.

    After Word screwed up vast swaths of my documents some years back, I vowed never to be caught that way again by any program.

  4. David Louis Edelman on August 1, 2007 at 11:40 am  Chain link

    The problem is using a document type that can be so easily corrupted.

    One thing I should have mentioned above is that I had until recently stored all my documents in MS Word 97/2000/XP format, and just that morning decided to try OpenDoc format. So the document in question had just been converted. I would have understood some formatting quirks, but to corrupt the doc entirely was unacceptable. (And btw, yes, I did try changing the file extension from DOC to ODT to see if that would fix it, but no dice.)

  5. Al on August 1, 2007 at 3:50 pm  Chain link

    I’m a starting aspiring writer who’s day job is as a software engineer (I hope to someday get a fraction accomplished what David has already done!).

    At my software company, we use Linux so I have no choice but to use OpenOffice. At home, my wife is computer illiterate so I can’t really experiment beyond MS Office stuff, so I straddle both worlds by necessity.

    Although I’m a huge proponent of open-source, I’m an even bigger proponent of using stuff that gets the job done. I have no shame using MS Word, especially if I pour my heart and soul onto the page. There will be people who will want OO rather than pay for MS Office, so OO isn’t going anywhere. However as an aspiring writer, I will not use OO as my primary tool and it pains me to say that I would recommend the same to other writers.

    On a side note, it sounds like you could really use version control for your documents. In software, there is CVS and Subversion. Curious if there is something equivalent for writers?

  6. MnMKY on August 2, 2007 at 9:06 am  Chain link

    The article sounds like you are wanting to stay with Microsoft, say you did your ‘duty’ and looked at the other software and now you confirmed your suspicions. ‘Do, no harm’ is your criteria and one episode automatically deems a product worthy of not using.

    The accomplishments of a worldwide effort, unifying multiple cultures and countries, is what OpenOffice.org represents. It is not a company sole bent on making money but on helping.

    I’ve had 1 corruption also. I use the OpenOffice.org product on a daily basis for over a year. Microsoft has showed little innovation since the beginning days, no wait they took the concept of a graphic interface from someone else to. Microsoft was a great marketing agency; their best client, themselves. Bill Gates is the ultimate master.

    The efforts of open source should be celebrated because of it’s accomplishments and, yes, Microsoft has had it’s growing pains and constant security flaws; I believe the last comparison left Microsoft with 34 within Office compared to 1 in OperOffice.org.

    They have lost innovation and now respin technologies for more money. They bully their way, with money only, through committee approvals and typically lose; look at the recent evaluation of the OOXML where they tried to stack the ISO process with partners and were unable to pass through their “standard”.

    OpenOffice.org deserves your talents unless you would rather sit on the bench and criticize and follow the the rest of the groupies. Innovation does not come from working in a bubble (MS OS, MS Products, MS Backend, MS tools) and neither does efficiency. Innovation comes from competition and not buying it.

  7. Dustin Puryear on August 2, 2007 at 11:40 am  Chain link

    It’s hard to argue against your point on stability, although I will say that many of these apps are in fact much more stable on Linux than Windows. But that doesn’t say much does it? If open source is truly going to make headway on the desktop, then obviously open source applications need to be able to run stably on Windows–not just Linux.

    OpenOffice is a nice piece of software, generally, but even I continue to use Office.

    Dustin Puryear
    Author, “Best Practices for Managing Linux and UNIX Servers”

  8. David Louis Edelman on August 2, 2007 at 12:58 pm  Chain link

    Al: Re version control software for writers… Generally, I’ve had success with the foolproof method of just saving a copy of everything in a different directory, labeling that “Draft n-1″ (where n is the draft I’m on), and backing everything up on Yahoo. Tobias Buckell has had some interesting posts on good writing software tools.

    MnMKY: Sounds like you and I have a basic difference in philosophy. You’ve inspired me to write another longer post about my feelings on Microsoft. Hopefully I’ll get it posted here in the next day or two.

  9. In Defense of Microsoft (David Louis Edelman’s Blog) on August 14, 2007 at 10:26 pm  Chain link

    […] OpenOffice: One Strike and You’re Out? […]

  10. […] Louis Edelman posted about the pains of OpenOffice and was chastised by a user in one of the comments. Today he responds in defense of Microsoft. […]

  11. Lee on August 29, 2007 at 9:52 pm  Chain link

    Hi. I’ve used OpenOffice extensively (over hundreds of documents) and have never encountered a problem like the one described above. Just thought Id add this to the list of user experiences. As far as I’m aware, openOffice does have automatic backups and file recovery. Of course, obsessive manual backups of important creative work are always a good idea. Good point about the need for CVS style version management, Al.

  12. David Louis Edelman on August 29, 2007 at 10:18 pm  Chain link

    Lee: Sure, makes sense that there are lots of people who have had good OpenOffice experiences. I’m curious if you’re running it on Linux or Windows? I suppose it makes sense that OO would be more stable on Linux, just like MS Office generally runs better on MS Windows than Mac.

    Re CVS: Guess there’s nothing really stopping you from just using Subversion or CVS on word processing files, is there? You’d probably have to save them as XML files first, and given all the chaos surrounding OpenXML formats, that might not be the wisest course of action.

    I know that MS Word comes with built-in versioning, file compare, etc. — sort of Subversion Lite features — but honestly I’ve never had need to use them. Anybody know if OpenOffice has these features, and if so, how they work?

  13. Müller Zsolt on September 19, 2007 at 4:50 am  Chain link

    We were using MS Office at my company for years and had constantly problems with stability (crashes, unrecoverable files, usability issues, etc.). Recently we switched to OpenOffice (we’re currently using it on both Windows and Linux) and found that we’ve similiar issues here too. It’s true that OO is more stable on Linux, than on Windows, and most crashes/recovery problems came during working with MS Office documents in OO. The native OO formats (ODT, ODS, etc.) are pretty stable, had no crash with them ever since. OO has all the features that we use, it’s just that in OO a lot of things have to be done in a different way, than in MS Office … one needs some time to get used to it. So our experience is: OO has not more problems than MS Office, but costs nothing … thus it has a better price/usability ratio. But that’s just for us. I’m sure OO lacks some features that might be crucial to the workflow of some offices. It’s a fact that OO is a way behind MS Office, but I think it’s closing up rapidly.

  14. jack_is_for_backup on May 12, 2008 at 9:08 pm  Chain link

    No matter what document writing tool I ever use, I NEVER… I REPEAT… NEVER make the mistake of changing a document from a given format to another or trust that either Microsoft “almighty” Word or OpenOffice Writer will not corrupt my document. I have seen Microsoft Word corrupt documents, however, I have always had something called BACKUP which beats all the odds of losing your precious document.

    I don’t think either Microsoft or even the storage master companies such as Seagate, Western Digital, EMC and all the others can be trusted to “always” keep your data in sound conditions. If that was the case, backups wouldn’t be recommended and even at that paranoid people would still use them. So I believe your incident is more a problem of how much you care for your data than whether you should use OpenOffice Writer or Microsoft Word.

    If I was to discard a Microsoft product for doing something whacko every now and then, I would have discarded them ALL long time ago. However I haven’t because they do what they do well most or close to most of the time. The same I can say for the free Open Source stuff, they do what they do well most or close to most of the time. In some cases Microsoft products do things a bit better and in some cases they do things a bit worse or they are just even.

    With exception of Vista which has added layers of delayed unproductivity to everything, from the system’s overall performance to the GUI navigation which seems now buried deep underground. However, I still have to learn it and use it because I need it for what I do for a living, I hope Microsoft reforms their GUI in future versions, however that may never happen.

  15. David Louis Edelman on May 12, 2008 at 10:46 pm  Chain link

    No matter what document writing tool I ever use, I NEVER… I REPEAT… NEVER make the mistake of changing a document from a given format to another

    Oh boy, have I learned that lesson…

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