In recent years, open-source alternatives to Office have matured to the point where IT managers are beginning to investigate the viability of moving from the Microsoft Corp. suite to a freely-licensed alternative. So when eWEEK Corporate Partner Ed Benincasa shared his desire to perform a user-based comparison between the OpenOffice.org project’s OpenOffice.org suite and Microsoft’s Office 2003, we saw a perfect opportunity to compare the suites under real-world conditions.
Benincasa is vice president of MIS at precision machining manufacturer FN Manufacturing Inc., in Columbia, S.C. Microsoft Office 97 and Office 2000 are deployed to the 300-plus users at the site, and Benincasa is evaluating whether to move to Microsoft’s latest suite, Office 2003, or the open-source OpenOffice.org 1.1.1.
Benincasa is looking to upgrade because Microsoft has discontinued distribution of new licenses for Office 2000 and Office 97. Benincasa is exploring his office application suite options because he is concerned about the high cost of an upgrade to Office 2003. He also wants to prevent Microsoft’s product release and support road map from dictating FN Manufacturing’s upgrade timetable.
“I’m not an anti-Microsoft person, and I think Office is a good product,” said Benincasa. “However, we are cautious with our IT budget, and I’d prefer to spend money that directly relates to our business, like investing in things like hardware. Office 97 does everything we want it to do, and we would stay on that suite if we could. It pains me to have to spend money for features and functions most of my end users won’t even begin to need.”
eWEEK Labs traveled to FN Manufacturing to put the two office suites to the test. We worked with Benincasa and members of his IT staff, as well as several representatives of the user population at FN Manufacturing and its related companies-Browning Arms Co., in Ogden, Utah, and parent company Fabrique Nationale (National Weapons Factory), in Herstal, Belgium.
Also participating in the testing were Corporate Partner Kevin Wilson, product line manager of desktop hardware at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., and Jeff Worboys, Duke’s product line manager of desktop productivity applications.
We worked with three groups of users, all of whom currently use Office 97 or 2000 for productivity tasks. We tested OpenOffice.org and Office 2003 with sample documents provided by eWEEK Labs and with the testers’ own files. We concentrated our tests on the applications’ capability and compatibility, as well as on user training requirements.
During tests, most users had little or no trouble moving from their current suite to OpenOffice.org. However, for more advanced users-especially advanced users of Excel-OpenOffice.org did not fare as well.
“The advanced users already push Microsoft Office to the limits and are constantly looking for more functionality, which OpenOffice. org may not be able to provide,” said Tina Sanzone, application analyst at Browning. “For other users, however, we can easily customize OpenOffice.org to make it look pretty close to what they already have.”
Users who tested Office 2003 found the suite more polished and easy to use than Office 97 and 2000. However, only a few testers-again, mostly advanced users of Excel-said an upgrade to Office 2003 would provide them significantly more useful functionality.
Benincasa said that he has rolled out OpenOffice.org on shop-floor computers for basic document viewing and that the application works well there.
Those who participated in this eVal seemed, for the most part, receptive to a move to OpenOffice.org, but it’s important to keep in mind that they volunteered for the test and, therefore, may be more open to a move than the bulk of Benincasa’s users.
Sum of their parts
In any case, all testers liked Office 2003 and said staying with Office would likely provide the smoothest upgrade path. “It’ll be easier to introduce Microsoft Office 2003 to users here at FN Manufacturing than OpenOffice because it’s a lot more user-friendly than OpenOffice,” said Joan Curfman, business systems supervisor at FN Manufacturing. “Training will definitely be more detailed and will take a lot longer on OpenOffice.org because the interface isn’t that friendly. Users here have problems using what we already have. They’ll probably find OpenOffice.org even more difficult to use and learn.”
Benincasa said training on OpenOffice.org would be conducted in-house, leveraging the OpenOffice.org knowledge developed within the organization through this eVal and FN Manufacturing’s previous tests of the suite.
A move to OpenOffice.org could be just the beginning of FN Manufacturing’s open-source journey. Benincasa has been pondering a move from Windows to Linux for some of the company’s desktop systems, a path the multiplatform OpenOffice.org would help clear.
Sum of Their Parts
We tested the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications in OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 and Office 2003 separately, but some of the testers’ assessments applied suitewide.
Almost every person who tested Office 2003 expressed appreciation for Office’s Task Pane-an interface feature that lets users carry out operations related to the document at hand, such as using the thesaurus while working on a Word document. Testers also said they valued Task Pane as an interface to Office’s help system, which they found to be effective.
As for OpenOffice.org, most testers said they liked being able to launch any of the suite’s document types from the application they were using. Testers also said they appreciated having all their OpenOffice.org application instances available from the Window tool bar menu item. The Window item in Offices apps, in contrast, shows only open instances of like applications.
Word vs. Writer
All the eVAL testers said they create and work with Word documents every day.
The testers who worked with Office 2003 said there were few differences between Word 2003 and earlier versions of the Microsoft word processor. In a comment echoed by many of our testers, Rick Miller, an engineer at FN Manufacturing, said, “Most tasks I perform are the same or similar [whether in Word 97 or 2000 or in Word 2003].”
That’s not to say that there weren’t issues: One tester, for example, complained that a key combination had changed and that Microsoft’s context-sensitive smart-tags feature got in the way during testing. By and large, however, users were agreed that their familiarity with Word would minimize the time required to get up to speed with Office 2003.
However, the testers who worked with OpenOffice.org said the suite’s word processor application, Writer, seemed familiar as well.
FN Manufacturing Validation Engineer Doug Shaffer said that Writer’s “layout and command locations are similar to Microsoft Word’s” and that it was “very easy to perform the standard basic tasks in Writer.”
Browning’s Sanzone, who tested OpenOffice.org in addition to Office 2003, said that documents took longer to open in Writer than they did in Word. This can be attributed to the fact that Writer must carry out an import operation when it opens documents saved in Microsoft’s Word format. For short documents, there’s no noticeable difference, but for large files with complex formatting, Writer can take as much as 10 seconds longer than Word to open the same document.
In general, though, of the OpenOffice.org applications we evaluated, Writer presented the fewest file-format-compatibility problems.
Several testers said they were impressed with the ability of Writer to save documents as PDF files, a feature they believe would save money as well as time because PDF export for Word requires a Microsoft add-in that must be purchased separately.
Another Writer feature that stood out for testers was the application’s word-complete function, similar to the auto-complete function of many Web browsers. Writer attempts to complete words being typed based on words previously typed in a particular document. Deborah Hordych, a buyer at FN Manufacturing, liked this feature but said that users would have to be careful that Writer was suggesting an appropriate word.
With a Belgian parent company, FN Manufacturing users were, not surprisingly, interested in Word 2003’s translation capabilities. Using a document he created, Kevin Patten, a controller in FN Manufacturing’s finance department, was able to use Word to effectively translate specific phrases from English to French, something Patten said he does frequently during his daily work routine.
“Extras like the translation feature are a really nice touch because they cut down on the amount of time I have to spend on a document,” said Patten. “Every minute I save on something like this is a minute I can spend working on something else.”
Excel vs. Calc
eVAL testers were split between those who use spreadsheets very little or for fairly simple tasks and those who are accustomed to using Excel 97/2000 as an analysis tool.
The latter group includes some of FN Manufacturing’s finance and engineering personnel. They leverage Excel’s statistics capabilities, among others, and appreciated the improvements made to the Pivot Table feature in Excel 2003. OpenOffice.orgs Calc offers a similar feature, called DataPilot, but testers had trouble locating it because of the differences in the way Calc and Excel are organized.
Our advanced testers also were interested in Excel’s Watch Window feature, something Microsoft added to the application in Office XP. A Watch Window is a separate, small window that remains “on top” and enables users to monitor a selected set of cells. Calc does not have a similar feature, but this wouldn’t likely be a deal breaker for FN Manufacturing users because the versions of Excel they currently use dont offer this functionality.
Among the more casual spreadsheet testers, the differences between the spreadsheet applications were less jarring. Romuald Dufour, an IT manager at Fabrique Nationale, said of Excel 2003: “There was not much difference between Office 2000, OpenOffice.org and Office 2003 for my use.”
Melinda Vause, who works in finance at FN Manufacturing, said Calc felt “similar to Excel, and it would be easy to learn the slight differences.”
Most of the Excel spreadsheets we used during testing were not heavily formatted, but we did experience compatibility issues between Excel and Calc. For the most part, these problems related to charts.
OpenOffice.org tester Vause noted that “graph names were converted to row numbers in some cases, and some formatting was dropped.”
The severity of these issues differed from document to document, and the significance differed from tester to tester.
FN Manufacturing bookkeeper Suzan Widener reported that the Excel-formatted spreadsheet she used during the eVal was compatible with Calc. However, Joan Curfman, who tested Office 2003 during the eVal but who had been part of an earlier OpenOffice.org test group, estimated it would take weeks to convert FN Manufacturing spreadsheets from Office 97 and 2000 to OpenOffice.org.
PowerPoint vs. Impress
eVAL testers said they use the PowerPoint presentation app less than any other Office application. However, a move to either PowerPoint 2003 or OpenOffice.org’s Impress would require significant training because PowerPoint 2003 is the Office application that’s changed the most since its 97/2000 incarnations and Impress is the OpenOffice.org application that differs most from Office in its design. Shaffer said of Impress: “Its icons and commands are not very similar to PowerPoint.”
FN Manufacturing produces its fair share of complex presentations, and it was with one such presentation that we experienced several compatibility problems between PowerPoint and Impress.
The FN Manufacturing presentation we were testing made heavy use of embedded Word and Excel objects, a result of the heavy collaboration among the groups that produced the document (a common scenario in many organizations). The upshot was that the small formatting snafus testers encountered in Writer and Calc tended to collect in the test presentation. FN Manufacturing would definitely have to rework this presentation-and likely others it has already produced-if it moved to OpenOffice.org.
What’s more, Impress and PowerPoint handled transition animations differently, and certain Impress capabilities, such as three-dimensional text in presentations, did not carry across to PowerPoint.
However, Philippe Nemery, an IT manager at FNs parent company in Belgium, said he’s used Impress for some time now and has come to prefer the way that the application is organized.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.