Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: Free Writer surpasses Microsoft Word under the hood

These days, whether for work, home, or school, most people in America use a computer for word processing.

The era of the typewriter ended long ago, and typing speed is considered by many people to be more important than good penmanship.

For over a decade, the king of word processing has been Microsoft Word, perhaps the most well known and widely used component of Microsoft Office.

Microsoft Word is everywhere: on library workstations, on school/college machines, and in workplaces large and small. New computers built by major manufacturers like Dell or Hewlett Packard (HP) often come bundled with Microsoft Works Suite, a cheaper version of Office that includes Word.

Most installations of Word can be found on machines running Windows, but the software is also available for Mac. (Word is not offered for Linux, though it is possible to install and run it on Linux using Wine).

Like millions of other users, I have the latest version of Microsoft Office running on my computer, and while I like the interface, I've become more and more dissatisfied with Word's performance.

This weekend, I was preparing a thank-you card to send to a friend who has long been a source of inspiration and strength for myself and the rest of the Northwest Progressive Institute team.

The card, which I created in Word, included several lines of text on the front, plus a photograph taken by an NPI staff member and a high resolution SVG I had illustrated in Inkscape and exported to PNG.

When I printed the document, I was annoyed to see that the photograph was fuzzy and the lines on the graphics rough.

I knew that Word's image compression must be to blame, because I can get sharp and beautiful photo prints using Adobe software.

I could have sent the card anyway, but it just wasn't crisp enough for me.

I exported the document to portable document format using Microsoft's Save As PDF Add-In for Office. Then I tried to print it from Adobe Reader to see if the quality would be any better. The graphic came out more smoothly, but predictably, the photograph looked even worse.

Frustrated, I wondered how another word processor would compare to Microsoft's. So I fired up's Writer and recreated my thank-you card there. is a free suite of productivity tools developed by Sun Microsystems with assistance from the open source community. can be installed on all major operating systems, including Linux, Mac, and Windows, but also FreeBSD, Irix, and Sun's own Solaris. It's truly multiplatform.

OpenOffice's user interface is not as sleek as Microsoft Word's. From my perspective, Word 2007's intuitive ribbon and glitzy appearance take first prize in the design category, but that's almost where the superiority ends. When it comes to performance and quality, beats Word, hands down.

My first test of OpenOffice was printing that thank-you card. I ran it off, unsure of what to expect. When I picked it up from the printer tray, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did the photograph on my card look much better, but the graphic did, too. (The text looked identical to the Word printout).

Pleased, I authored a handwritten note on my card, put it inside an envelope, stamped it, and set it aside to be mailed.

Next, I wondered how would fare against Microsoft's Save As PDF Add-In. I often need to export documents to PDF, and I've noticed that Word tends to produce PDFs that are considerably large in size.

So I created a two page document as a test. The first page was a fake memo with several paragraphs of Wall Street gibberish (corporate mumbo jumbo) generated using David Powers' fabulous Lorum Ipsum extension.

The second page contained a table. The table shows the outcome of Washington gubernatorial races from 1998-2008. It lists the year, Democratic candidate, and the Republican opponent who was defeated.

The PDF produced by Word was about 196 kilobytes in size. The PDF produced by Writer was about 45 kilobytes in size.

Not only was the Writer PDF four times more compact, but it correctly exported the table on the second page, whereas Word somehow messed up the table borders. (The border widths in the PDF produced by Word are not all the same, but they're supposed to be. The PDF produced by Writer has a flawless table).

Compared to Word, Writer also seems to use slightly less memory. Since I started comparing Writer and Word, I've pulled up Task Manager in Windows to check memory use at regular intervals. For example, while I was writing this post, Winword.exe clocked in at around 104,500 K, while soffice.bin (Writer) clocked in at 99,100 K. Each processor had the same three documents open simaltaneously.

How does Writer compare to Word with other features that I often use? Pretty well. I found that creating documents for Avery label templates was a snap, and Writer's mail merge was easy to use. Writer doesn't yet have as many built in wizards for document types as Word does, but there are a few basics available - letters, faxes, and agendas, for example. Writer also lacks Word 2007's SmartArt, but drawings and graphics can be easily inserted from other programs.

I use bullets and numbering frequently in my documents, and I've long had trouble changing my lists in Word. The 2007 version improved Word's handling of lists, but Writer gives me absolutely no trouble when I want to make changes. Writer's autocorrect functionality is also far less intrusive and annoying than Word's.

What about crash recovery? I purposely terminated to see what would happen to a document if the program was suddenly shut down. To my delight, all the data I had entered was promptly recovered when I restarted Writer.

Perhaps the best thing about Writer, though, is that it doesn't default to proprietary file formats. Documents are saved in .ODF (Open Document Format). ODF files can be opened with online collaboration tools like Google Docs or Zoho, as well as the latest version of Corel WordPerfect and IBM Lotus Symphony. (Symphony is based in part on

Microsoft has announced it will add ODF support to Office 2007 in the first half of this year with Office Service Pack 2. When that occurs, Word 2007 users will be able to save and open ODF files and even make ODF the default file format.

Saving in ODF is a really good idea because it allows for ultimate portability. An ODF file can be opened by different word processors on any major operating system, whereas support for proprietary Microsoft formats is more limited.

Just a few months ago, however, Microsoft succeeding in getting the Office 2007 file formats approved as an open standard. Naturally, Microsoft would prefer that its own file format be the dominant worldwide standard, as opposed to ODF, which is vendor neutral, but that doesn't mean we all have to do what Microsoft wants.

As Edward Macnaghten explains:
Standards exist for interoperability, and office document format standards should not be different. The goal is that someone in country A working for company B using product C can interchange documents with someone in country D working for company E using product D without any thought as to what precisely A, B, C, D, E or any other letter actually is. It simply works. There is no need to worry if any single vendor would continue in the office suite business or not, as any other vendor could be used.

ODF was created using existing standards with this interoperability in mind, using long public consultation and design periods to achieve this. The benefits of this are evident when examining the resulting formats themselves.

It has been implemented by a large number of office products and the list is growing.

OOXML was designed by a single vendor, Microsoft, with no extensive public consultation or design input. It was largely designed to co-exist with their legacy formats using their own products.
Interoperability and standards are a key part of NPI's position on technology policy. Without standards, we're all stuck using proprietary formats that serve as barriers to the free exchange of information.

Imagine if web pages were offered in proprietary formats. We all might have to buy browsers with various support for different formats. It would be a disaster - the Internet simply wouldn't be the accessible medium that it is. is a terrific product that should be considered a must-have for Windows and Mac users. (It's already included by default with many Linux distributions, like Ubuntu). is free, completely interoperable, and its Writer word processor beats Microsoft Word where it really counts.


Blogger Marbux said...

You have inadvertently fallen victim to some very key disinformation as to the interoperability of OpenDocument Format ("ODF") implementations that has been widely disseminated by vendors with vested interests.

I am a former member of the OASIS ODF Technical Committee. I left two years ago because of that big vendor-dominated TC's obdurate refusal to get started on make the ODF Interoperability Myth that the big vendors spread come true.

Here are some real-world examples of ODF "interoperbility:"

"One thing I have always dreamed to be possible is that when I write a doc in KOffice I can then open it in OOo to use that one feature that's useful to me and then save it and continue in KOffice without loosing [sic] lots of data.

"Its still a dream, of course. Most features are lost on opening and saving it in OOo, but its a nice goal :)"

KOffice KWord lead developer Thomas Zander, email to OASIS OpenDocument Adoption Technical Committee mailing list (September 27, 2007),

"Any comments on ODF as the default format? There was a 2004 discussion, but has anything changed after that?"

"No. We will not make it our default file format. Our internal model does not map 100% to ODT and visa versa (basically because ODT is nothing more than a dump of's internal format [to XML]). Any data loss that happens because of saving and loading a file again will not be accepted by our users. ..."

"So you don't advise distributions to set it as default either?"

"No, I'd strongly advise against making ODT the default format in Abiword for distributions given the previously mentioned lack of 100% feature coverage."

AbiWord developer Marc Mauer, as quoted in Rahul Sundaram, AbiWord
Team Interview, Red Hat Magazine (8 May 2008),


Implementation / Raw Score / Raw Score Percentage / Weighted Percent 151 100% 100%
StarOffice 149 99% 97%
Sun Plug-in for Word 142 94% 96
Clever Age/MS Plug-in for Word 139 92% 94%
Wordperfect 122 81% 86%
Koffice 121 80% 79%
Google Docs 117 77% 76%
TextEdit 55 36% 47%
Abiword 48 32% 55%

... There are no implementations that offer 100% compatibility with


Shah, Rajiv C. and Kesan, Jay P., Lost in Translation: Interoperability Issues for Open Standards - ODF and OOXML as Examples
(September 2008),
Link to paper on SSRN (compatibility fidelity comparisons of ODF implementations testing only a very small set of word processing features).

"On load, Office 2007 SP2 will simply ignore the unsupported elements and attributes in ODF files. We do not attempt to round trip unsupported elements and attributes, they will be removed from the ODF file if you resave it using Office 2007 SP2."

Microsoft's Peter Amstein in comment to Doug Mahugh, ODF Implementation Notes for Office 2007 SP2 (16 December 2008), Link.

Or a personal experience last week: I need to get the latest published draft of the ODF 1.2 draft standard (in ODT format) into WordPerfect X4 SP 1 to use the grammar checker to get a passive voice clause count. (It's the only implementation of ODF that has such a tool.)

When I try to open it in WordPerfect X4, I get an error message telling me the zip file is corrupt. (ODF documents are normally packaged in a Zip container.)

I try to work around the barrier by opening the document in IBM's Lotus Symphony (a clone of the code base) and writing it to PDF, then attempted to import the PDF into WordPerfect. The PDF is blank after the first few pages, and WordPerfect crashes if I try to go further, regardless of the PDF import options selected. Surprising, because the X4 PDF import is quite good; it even incorporates optical character recognition for scanned documents and text in images. This is the first time WordPerfect X4 has ever crashed for me while importing a PDF. Sometimes they won't open because the PDF is corrupt or encrypted. This is a new experience.

I try again, using Symphony to write the document to RTF. WordPerfect X4 can't open Symphony's flavor of RTF. I try WordPerfect X3 but no joy. I try again, using Symphony to write to DOC. Neither version of WordPerfect can open Symphony's translation to DOC. Surprising again because WordPerfect's DOC filters have been outstanding since WordPerfect 9, at least as to DOC files generated by Microsoft Word.

Switching documents, I go through similar travails
with the published ODF 1.1 specification, using both the PDF and ODT versions.

Bottom line: I can't get either document into WordPerfect X3 or X4 using any rich text format. So I convert the document to plain text using Symphony and get my work done.

That is the real state of ODF interoperability. There is no such thing. But that does not stop the vested interests from claiming that there is. E.g.:

"Small and medium sized businesses will benefit tremendously from open
standards such as the OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Web-based applications. Information will be more easily shared among computing systems, such as desktop, laptop, portable devices, or the data center, without single choice propriety operating systems and application roadblocks."

IBM Vice President Robert S. Sutor, Open for Business, Express Computer (24 December 2007), Link.

Before the 22nd Century, Bob? The ODF standard does not even specify the conformity requirements essential to achieve interoperability, as required by law governing international standards. OpenDocument is neither "open" nor a true standard. There is more data gap than specification in ODF.

OOWriter has many attributes but non-lossy interoperability with other ODF implementations is not among them. Like Microsoft Office, is just yet another big vendor lock-in play.

"Interoperable" does not belong in the same sentence with or any other implementation of the ODF "standard." The relevant definition is "the ability of two or more IT systems to exchange information at one or more standardised interfaces and to make mutual use of the information that has been exchanged."

ISO/IEC JTC 1 Directives, 5th Ed., v. 3.0, 5 April 2007, Annex 1, pg. 145, Link (PDF).

Or as IBM's Bob Sutor puts it when not speaking about ODF:

"Interoperability is the ability for two different and independent software applications to exchange information without loss of data, semantics, or metadata."

Bob Sutor, Interoperability More or Less, Bob Sutor's Website and Blog (25 January 2007), Link.

The correct term to use when speaking of is "non-interoperable."

Paul E. (Marbux) Merrell, J.D.

Springfield, Oregon

Universal Interoperability Council

January 11, 2009 10:41 PM  
Blogger Anonymous said...


Interoperability is still a work in progress. Political agendas by big corporations take a while to break down as can be seen by many including Thomas Zander "One thing I have always dreamed to be possible is . . ." The common person's desire will help force the corporations to listen for we pay their sustenance. Interoperability is a work in progress. Consider the following from

Interoperability Advances – The OASIS Interoperability and Conformance Technical
Committee was launched in 2008 to ensure that the growing number of ODF-compliant
applications are able to interoperate and conform to the ODF specification by, among
other actions, analyzing the state of ODF interoperability, making recommendations,
compiling a corpus of ODF interoperability test documents, and hosting multi-vendor interoperability demonstrations.

February 3, 2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Marbux and his disgruntled side kick Gary Edwards were long ago exposed. Their m.o. is long tirades and collections of dozens of quotes taken out of context, strung together by dubious pseudo-legal analysis written in the style of a photocopied conspiratorial screed about government fluoridation of water.

Some good examples of their debunkage is here, here, and here

February 5, 2009 1:27 PM  
Blogger Marbux said...

Folks, since he didn't do so, let me introduce Rob Weir of IBM, the co-chairman of the OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee ("ODF TC"). His company holds the unchallenged title as No. 1 Disseminator of the ODF Interoperability Myth.

As is his bent, Rob once again tries to kill the messenger rather than dealing with the message. Let it suffice to say that the "debunkage" Rob links to has itself been debunked here and in Gary Edwards' extensive comments here.

Apparently the co-chair of the ODF TC prefers not to discuss here how to make the ODF Interop Myth come true. Unfortunately, that is how it works on the ODF TC as well.

Paul E. (Marbux) Merrell, J.D.

February 5, 2009 9:55 PM  

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