Why I went from OpenOffice to MS Office, and what this means for digital scholarship

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I’ve recently uninstalled the otherwise excellent free and opensource openoffice for a paid for, out of date copy of MS Office 2003 (the version covered by the OU’s work at home licence), so why did I back down from free and open source and side with with the monopoly that everybody loves to hate? Am I a traitor to the digital scholarship cause?

I adopted openoffice about 6 months ago when I bought a new netbook to work on, without realising that one reason for the low price was through unbundling MS Office, which I hadn’t bothered to check. So for mainly economic reasons I downloaded the openoffice suite, although I was also professionally interested in looking at the open source alternative.

To start with I was very happy with the product, there are some great features and it supported most file formats that I encountered (I had troubles with .docx files, which I don’t think will be solved by moving to office 2003 ), but the real problems started when I began collaborating with others.

I was working on a document with a number of colleagues who were using the track changes functionality in MS office and I couldn’t see their changes, and worse the wordcount was rapidly increasing due to double counting causing me to worry about a phantom 1000 words or so that disappeared as soon as I loaded the document into word and accepted all changes. On top of this my formatting was disappearing as the file was being saved as .odt, .rtf and .doc files (this also led me to submit an important document that I later learned looked a mess in Word).

I imagine that I may have been able to avoid these problems by taking the time to learn the differences between OO and MS Office, and I guess there are probably workarounds. I don’t mention these problems to have a dig at OO, but to raise the important point that swimming against the tide is tiring and problematic (just ask mac/ linux users! here is a mac oriented discussion about hating ms office) and at the first sign of trouble I reverted to the tried and tested de facto standards, despite my ideological reservations.

Is MS Office a benign, if expensive, hegemony or have I contributed to the profits and power of an evil global empire?

When using technology to collaborate you are constrained by the technological choices of others, what’s the benefit to being the first user of facebook? These network effects are well studied in technology, where the benefits increase with increased adoption (think about how entrenched the internal combustion engine has become, and how this is a barrier to the development and adoption of electric cars). However these network effects can stifle innovation and lead to natural monopolies.

Are some network effects too strong to fight? even when you know you are right? How can I expect other academics to adopt new technologies if at the first hint of bother I reverted to my comfort tools?linus with his comfort blanket


About digitalscholar

I am a sociologist with an interest in new technology. Previously I’ve worked on a number of projects at Lancaster University and the Open University looking at the use of new technologies and social media by researchers. I was also a social sciences teaching fellow at the foundation centre at Durham University teaching sociology and anthropology. I am now a senior lecturer at the University of West London's Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning where I oversee the foundation provision and support retention. I'm sure I'll still be interested in, and occasionally blog about, tech related things. I use this blog to post thoughts about using new technologies in my professional academic life and wider thoughts and links relating to technology more generally.
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8 Responses to Why I went from OpenOffice to MS Office, and what this means for digital scholarship

  1. paula says:

    I don’t think that moving to Microsoft Office will solve the problems of interoperability, because there are problems even between different versions of MS Office.
    I must say that for collaboration I would choose a wiki, although I think Google docs has this option too.
    Another problem of MS Office is the closed format. As a principle, I try to use the odf format. We already have problems today to open digital objects because they were made in proprietary, closed formats.

    I understand your problem, but I think it is unfair. Sometimes I think that one day this can happen to me (be forced to use MS Office because others are using it)
    This is what I would have to do:
    – I would have to buy MS Office
    – I would have to buy Windows (I work in GNU/Linux)
    – I would have to reboot my computer every time I needed to work in MS Office

    So, the first thing to do would be suggesting another collaborative platform (wiki, real time edit webapp, etc).
    If that would not be possible for some reason, I would ask other people to use openoffice, because the only thing they have to do is a free download, they even can maintain there operating system! 🙂

    I don’t think that people should force other people to use openoffice or MS Office, but if people use different systems and interoperability is needed, than people have to make a choice and that choice should be the easiest, open and less expensive for the people involved.

    (sorry for my bad English)

  2. Andy Olson says:

    I have never really liked OpenOffice, it was just to big and slow for my machine to handle. 😦

    That’s why I tend to favour SSuite Office’s free office suites as they specialise in the RTF document format. 🙂 – { http://www.ssuitesoft.com }

  3. Steve says:

    You’ve just succumbed to the pressure that Microsoft have been dealing out for years…. don’t support standards and break backwards compatibility and then people will be forced to switch – aka vendor lock in.

    The problem with most users and Microsoft products is that they come preinstalled, so why would anyone choose any different? So they create their document in the new default DOCX format, completely oblivious that this will lock out anyone on pre Office 2007. Those users are then forced to upgrade, perpetuating the cycle.

    Office/Word isn’t a collaborative tool. Track changes is a poor attempt at collaboration plus I don’t believe you can both be working on the same document over a network share simultaneously. As Paula above noted, Google Docs or a wiki are the way to go for collaboration.

    As a Mac user, I don’t believe I am swimming against the tide. I am about 500% more productive on a Mac because it gives me the tools to do what I need without getting in my face. Windows gives me a headache and makes the simplest tasks so frustratingly longwinded. I used to use Windows, but have never looked back after switching.

    BTW, you’ll soon be forced to upgrade Office when someone send you an incompatible file. Spend some time and switch then.

  4. thanks for your comments!

    paula – I think that power relations affect the extent to which i can request which software people use. I can’t ask my bosses to install and learn new software just to accomodate me! However they can insist I use whatever technology they like. This is a pretty important issue I think.

    Andy – I did actually look at some lightweight office suites which look pretty good, especially for devices with limited memory, but I couldn’t be sure that they could handle track changes any better than OO, that was the key functionality for me.

    Steve – I also think that as MS Office is installed as standard on OU computers, and most computers everywhere, they have become the expected standard. In the current economic climate the savings from abandoning MS Office (how much would a site licence be?) could be substantial. I know students are given a copy of OO, which is promising.

    As for real time collaboration I’ve used both wikis and google docs in the past and both of these have their uses, but they don’t have the functionality of word which is a pretty good WP (as even most of the mac users agree in the link above!) and i end up importing the finished document to sort the formatting.

  5. Steve says:

    That’s a good point digitalscholar: Because of the proliferation of Office, it’s become an expected standard, but its not a *real* standard.

    A program will never be a standard, the format it supports will.

    ODF is the actual standard, as approved by OASIS. MS tried to push the OOXML format through and its halfway there, but hasn’t been accepted by OASIS, and is not actually a standard at all. I will place money that MS will change it at some point in the near future!

  6. Steve says:

    Actually, just on licensing costs: The Australian government spends over $500 million on software every year! Imagine the savings. Sure there would be support costs, but open source software has come leaps and bounds in the last 5 years, it would easily hold it’s own, especially Open Office.

  7. ikd says:

    i can understand your frustration when trying to work with others who cling to a particular piece of software. and yes, i have suffered too from loss of formatting etc.

    however, i have found out that it is often the fault of the other party (not the software) if something they include in a document comes out the wrong way in my machine or at another location.

    Change is something that happens slowly and with a lot of resistance.


  8. dE says:

    The new monopolistic MS office is forced to support open formats by law… so you can export now.

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