Reclaiming Word

Screenshot of OpenOffice Writer 2.0 running on Mandrake Linux

If you own a computer, you probably have some form of word processor. Whether you need to type a report at work or a letter at home or maybe just a short shopping list, chances are you think you need Word or rather Microsoft Word TM . How could we possibly manage without WordArt, ubiquitous in nursery schools and on church noticeboards worldwide? Don't messages look so dull if left in a dated serif font? Isn't it just wonderful that we can highlight text in bold and change its colour? And just in case we make the odd typo, we've got a spell checker to boot.

Now use a pocket calculator or the free one that comes with your operating system to do some simple maths. Each Microsoft Office licence costs between £90 and £400 depending on the package (Standard, Student, Professional, Business, Developer) and applicable discounts. For sake of argument let's assume an average spend of £150. Now let's just take the population of the prosperous world, around a billion, and assume one in eight (1/4 of the working population) require an MS Office Suite either at home or at work, that's a whopping £18.75 billion straight into the coffers of one leviathan every two to three years just for software that was developed by numerous teams of programmers over the last 30 years. Indeed every single major feature available in Word and Excel was pioneered by other programs such as Word Star, Wordperfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Corel Draw long before Microsoft took the market by storm in the mid 1990s. Computers may now be much faster with superior graphics and the interface has been jazzed up, but mail merge, spell checking and multicolumn layout have been with us since the late 1980s. The processing power of your average PDA or even mobile phone is greater than that of a 1988 word-processing typewriter complete with a 10" monochrome monitor and a revolutionary 3.5" floppy disk drive. I once calculated that 300 pages saved in WordStar 4 could fit onto one double-density 720KB floppy. We can now store the contents of 80 floppies onto one 128MB flash memory card.

Bloated Word Documents

I recently received the contents of a web page as a word document, all 26 megabytes of it, a long download even in the age of broadband Internet. The resulting web page with around 300 words and 6 pictures occupies around 120KB on the remote server. An extreme example because unedited digital pictures had just been imported into Word and manually resized and aligned. The other day I received an e-mail with a Word attachment advertising a conference, word count 158, character count 1157, byte count in excess of 1,600,000, all for one mediocre logo. Had the information been cut and pasted into an e-mail, it would have added 2KB at most! The document contained no formatting that could not be easily reproduced in any half-decent e-mail programme such as freely downloadable Mozilla Thunderbird.

So what if Microsoft makes a fortune from its monopoly? Isn't Word just the most user-friendly text editor out? You might have guessed it, but I'm typing this rant in OpenOffice 2.0 and as a seasoned MS Word user I've yet find anything that OpenOffice cannot do just as well as its premium-rate competitor.

MS Word's essential features have hardly changed since version 6. Word 97 saw a new file format causing temporary incompatibility with a large pool of Word 6 users. Word 2000 had multiple copy and paste and Word XP has belatedly embraced XML, albeit Microsoft's implementation thereof. But let's face the facts, your average Word user does not know how to use styles, autocorrect, autotext and automated tables of contents, let alone craft advanced XML projects. Yet every single one of these features is now available in OpenOffice Writer and version 2.0 has enhanced MS-Office compatibility.

Millions of documents are formatted day in day out with little more than the dropdown font-type and font-size selectors, bold, italics and underline. Creative users will play around with WordArt, insert an image from the ClipArt library, embed a digital photo or paste in one acquired from the Internet. Advanced users may insert the odd table, add hyperlinks or even spread text over multiple columns. But only a small minority of Word users have more than scratched the surface of the programme's potential and neither should they? If you're not a technical writer, legal secretary, translator or web developer, why should you care if the heading of your report is merely set to Arial size 24 or is actually set to heading 1 (style dropdown)? Now imagine you need to create a table of contents after drafting an 80 page instruction manual with 64 sections, 257 subsections and 2429 footnotes and your boss will probably ask you to make many more post-edits. If you had structured your document with hierarchical headings, the task could be automated and the TOC would automatically update when the page number of a new section changed.

Format Wars

Back in the early 1990s it was customary to specify word processor formats. As a technical translator I'd often receive files in WordStar, WordPerfect, AmiPro, Word 5 for the Mac as well as Word 2.0 and Word 6.0/95. To this list we may add the tools used by publishers and graphics professionals such as PageMaker and Quark Express and let's not forget the programmable typesetting language Tex and the more user-friendly LaTex, used by academia and publishers especially in the Unix/Linux world. All had irksome interoperability issues with formatting, accented characters and macros. Not surprisingly many agencies insisted on the cross-platform RTF standard (Rich Text Format). By 1997 Microsoft had for all intents and purposes nixed all serious competitors and used their new-found strength to impose a new de facto standard. Millions of Word 6.0/95 users will recall the compatibility woes they endured with the first batch of Word 97 files. Even after downloading a converter from Microsoft (in the days of 14.4 and 28.8kbps modems), the results were often unreadable or required time-consuming reformatting. It took Microsoft two patches to get its Word 97 to Word 6.0 converter working properly. Indeed it probably took two more years for Word 97 to establish itself as the dominant format. But those who argue that the Word .doc format is here to stay and is essential to collaboration and interopability have a surprise in store for them. In 2006 Microsoft will in effect ditch their own de facto standard by making the new XML-based format the default save option (in my experience fewer and fewer run-of-the-mill Word users are familiar with features such as "Save As" for converting to other formats). Want to know why? Well why not read Microsoft's official reasons straight from the horse's mouth (Microsoft Office Open XML Formats Overview). Evidently XML-based formats are not only more transparent, but partially corrupted files are much easier to recover, because XML is human-readable and lends itself much better to parsing by third-party programmes. Wow, that's what the guys at OpenOffice have been arguing for years. Both the new OpenDocument and the older SWX formats are XML-based, storing text, style and pictures in separate XML files embedded in one jar-compressed file. Microsoft's new format uses Windows-centric zip-compression, but the essential idea is the same. Word 2000 and 2002 users will be able to download an update to read the new XML-based format, but millions of extant Word 97 users will soon find their product totally unsupported by the Redmond Giant. They could download OpenOffice 1.1.5 or 2.0 beta, both of which support MS-Word XML, but sadly many will be persuaded to part with more hard-earned cash for an MS-branded upgrade.

Bells and Whistles

In 1993 I set about buying my first PC with a windowing graphic user interface. "What software can I install?", I asked the owner of a local shop and added "I'll need a Word processor, and best of all MS Word", as that's what most of my clients, mainly translation agencies, required. "We just use Corel Draw 3", he replied. "But surely that's just for drawing?" I quipped "No, no it's good for flyers and most correspondence with our customers". Corel Draw 4 even had a spell checker and what's more you could stretch and bend text on a machine with little more than four megabytes of RAM. If you never wrote letters spanning more than two to three pages (multi-page text flow is a bit of an issue in Corel Draw), Corel Draw 3 would do you fine. Now you know where Microsoft drew their inspiration for the inclusion of WordArt in their 1995 edition of Word!

Many myths abound about open-source software. All alternatives to MS Word import and export MS Word Documents. OpenOffice even imports WordArt, but relies on FontWorks and fully integrated drawing application to create fancy text, drawings and charts. Admittedly some incompatibility remains, but this mainly relates to minor aesthetic and alignment quirks, e.g. MS Word tables sometimes extend beyond a page width in OpenOffice, because Word corrects manual resizing, and OpenOffice does not allow dashed table borders because dashed lines were not specified in the cross-platform universal Rich Text Format (the is probably one of the biggest deficiencies in OpenOffice). Most notably in version 1.0 Word VBA Macros associated with a file will not work, but but OpenOffice 2.0 lets you selectively enable Word macros and convert them to its native Star Basic. But then again Word macros are a primary source of Windows viruses and few users know how to apply document-specific macros anyway. The main use of macros is to automate common word processing tasks and both OpenOffice and MS Word let you do that. If anything Star Basic is much more versatile than Microsoft's legendary Visual Basic, has copious documentation and should make transition from one office suite to another relatively painless.

What about Publisher?

There is one conspicuous omission in OpenOffice: a program that imports MS Publisher files. To be honest I don't understand the attraction of Publisher. With only the full MS suite at my disposal (sadly a common occurrence in Microsoft-only offices), I'd find its core product, Word, a much easier option for most desktop publishing and then simply import graphics designed in other applications, but in OpenOffice one can change backgrounds and reformat page layout for different paper sizes effortlessly and besides the best program I know for 4-fold birthday cards is Corel Printhouse. The main problem for OpenOffice users is opening and editing MS Publisher files sent by others. Alas Microsoft's wizards for exporting to HTML are far from perfect especially if you desire high-definition print quality. If used with Acrobat Distiller (another £60), MS Publisher files can be exported to PDF files, although most graphics tend to be converted to bitmaps boosting file size. My best advice would be to kindly ask a Publisher user to save their file as an Enhanced Metafile (.emf) and then OpenOffice Draw will import it page by page more or less intact and let you edit and save the resulting multi-page document as PDF and voilà. However, if you demand professional results from your publications, then I'd consider either Corel Draw or, for larger outputs and budgets, Adobe InDesign or PageMaker. The latter will even import Publisher Files, produced by amateurs as no professionals worth their salt would use such a graphically challenged application.

The Power Point Paradigm

The features offered by this application, ubiquitous in offices throughout the public and private sectors, say more about the nature of our superficial society than the state of information technology. Indeed the term has embedded itself into our everyday vocabulary to such an extent that for many it may mean an indispensable multipurpose programme (many use it for desktop publishing or drafting web pages) or a projector they may use to display the results on a large screen. In effect Power Point draws on the resources of other applications either integral to the operating system or the Office suite, to juggle multimedia and display it in a series of slides rather than pages. Besides adding gratuitous custom animations of text and images floating over the screen, little functionality is native to Power Point. In the process it encourages the dumbing down of messages to the lowest common denominator with no more than seven bullet points recommended on each page, a virtual collection of soundbites. I see some uses for computer projectors in many teaching situations as a replacement for overhaed projectors, blackboards and whiteboards, but they don't need Micro$oft Power Point to work!

Open Office Impress does almost everything Power Point can do, but lacks the wealth of templates supplied with MS Office. For this you'll need to buy Sun Office 8.0 or rely on a third-party vendor. Admittedly I could not work out how to achieve the typewriter effect, but then again you probably just need a downloadable macro to perform this trick. Unlike the market leader, OpenOffice Impress exports to Flash, the de facto web-optimised multimedia integration plug-in. Hopefully, at some stage Web browsers will offer native support for XML-based SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and SMIL (Synchronised Multimedia Interface Language). Indeed OpenOffice Draw 2.0 will also let you save any graphic as an XML-compliant SVG file. Microsoft may provide a plug-in to enable anyone with Internet Explorer to view Power Point presentations within their browser window, but file sizes are way too big. The other day I tried to view a short presentation with 20 slides (which once downloaded displayed fine in Open Office Impress), but occupying 13.8MB. All we need a user-friendly application to resize and export your digital snaps and video clips to this format with text captions and Power Point could well prove a passing fad.

The impact of this gizmo has attracted the attention of numerous social commentators. Edward Tufte has even written a book, The Cognitive Style of Power Point.

Database Integration

Originally considered a relative weakness of the OpenOffice suite, version 2.0's offering beats Access any day, offering not only the native dBase format but allowing full compatibility with open-source MySQL and Microsoft Access via ODBC and JDBC drivers, allowing users to update database on a remote server. You can also import address books from Mozilla Thunderbird, Netscape Messenger and even MS Outlook, within the main Writer interface. If you stick to Microsoft, you'd need their professional MS-SQL Server to do that!

Why do people still use Microsoft Office?

If OpenOffice is so good and alternatives such as Corel PerfectOffice are cheaper, why would anyone want to spend over £100 on MS Office? Microsoft's virtual monopoly on personal computer operating systems and its marketing and PR clout have enabled it to persuade politicians, IT managers and the general public that their product is not only indispensable, but migrating to another would prove costly. Their strongest argument is that retraining staff would prove more expensive than an upgrade. But how were staff trained in the first place? Were they trained in word-processing, spreadsheets, desktop publishing, database management and networking or were they trained to use Microsoft products to perform these tasks? In this regard we could rename The European Computer Driving Licence a Microsoft Product Familiarisation Course. In reality most users will only notice that some features are accessed from different menus or icons, but it's easy to change default shortcuts to those used in MS Office. It took me a little while to discover that FontWorks (WordArt for Microsoft aficionados) can be accessed by clicking on the drawing icon within OpenOffice writer and then clicking on the FontWorks icon.

Prior to Office 2000, many may have installed a friend's copy of MS Office with the registration key affixed to the CD case. Now all MS products require product activation limited to one machine. This may seriously deter piracy, but has also led to a significant decrease in the number of people upgrading in the real world. There are still far more Office 97 users in the UK than owners of Office 2000 or 2003. Can you seriously justify such an outlandish expense with no tangible benefits over free open-source software? And if you really want to pay, you can always purchase Sun's jazzed up Star Office 8.0 for under £80. If your local council implements a Microsoft-only policy, let them know they're wasting our money to enrich the obscenely wealthy. We should treat operating systems and essential productivity software as a public good in the same way as a libraries and schools. Computing is simply too pervasive for us to let one multinational corporation enjoy a near total monopoly.

Neil Gardner