(Please be aware that the bulk of this post was written before any conflict-of-interest that may or may not occur may or may not have begun occurring. Over the next couple of weeks I will be clearing the decks of such old posts so that they are not influenced by recent circumstances.)
I have written four different novels in my life using four different document formats. The first was originally written on Microsoft Write (*.wri), the freebie that came with Windows 3.1 that was replaced with WordPad on Windows 95. We didn’t own Microsoft Word at the time, but I probably wouldn’t have used it even if we did because I had the opportunity to use Microsoft Works but didn’t. The second was written on Word (*.doc). The third was written on OpenOffice.org 1.1 (*.sxw). The most recent one was also written on OpenOffice.org, but it was using the new OpenDocument Format (*.odt). I’ve toyed around with the idea of writing the next one on a more recent version of Microsoft Works (*.wkd) just to keep the streak going, but I probably won’t.
I first started moving away from MS Word in 2002 when StarOffice released the code for its software suite under the name OpenOffice.org and allowed it for free consumption. My friend Tony, a big-time Open Source Software (OSS) advocate, suggested it to me. I’d toyed around with StarOffice before and though it was perfectly fine I still ran into the licensing problem that MS Office had insofar as I had numerous computers and didn’t want to be responsible for holding numerous licenses*. OpenOffice offered me a chance to be thrifty and legit, so I decided to give it a shot. I was planning to write a November Novel and decided that I’d give it a trial-by-fire test run while writing it.
It took a bit of getting used to for finding the various features, but for the most part it passed with one grave problem. I did have a few complaints, though. It was resource-intensive (even compared to its Microsoft counterpart), interoperability with MS Office was flawed, and the aforementioned grave problem. I was writing the novel on a laptop and whenever I closed the laptop it would go into sleep mode. OpenOffice couldn’t handle that and when it came back up the document would revert to the previous saved version. Further, the auto-save feature was not very diligent. So I’d have to rewrite a page or to. How I actually put up with that considering the tight deadline I was under is beyond me, but I guess after it happens the first couple times you remember to save your work with OCD-like vigilance.
I voiced my complaints to my OSS-boosting friends and they responded how OSS people frequently did whenever their product fell short, which is to blame the user. It was my fault for expecting it to be able to handle such user behavior and my fault for not saving my work just to be careful. Further, they explained to me that it was Microsoft’s fault because their sleep mode should save everything exactly as-is. Be that as it may I simply said that even if it isn’t OOo’s fault it is their problem and that I wouldn’t be using the software on the laptop anymore (which, at that point, was the only place that I was using it).
Fortunately the corporations that contribute to Open Source Software are more large-minded than many of its advocates, so when OpenOffice.org 2.0 came out they specifically addressed all of the above issues. The part that sold me, though, was the implementation of OpenDocument Format (ODF). What ODF promised was an open standard that would be consistent across almost all software suites so that even if development on OOo stopped or at least stopped improving, I could simply take my documents and use them with something else. Microsoft hadn’t signed on** (of course), but Corel Suite and various others had.
Around that time I heard that Microsoft was itself changing its document formatting and that though conversion would be possible it would still have to go through conversion process and that without a patch of some sort my Microsoft Office wouldn’t be able to read new documents anyway. This was something of a last straw for me. I’d managed to keep on keeping on with MS Office 2000 and this started sounding more and more like a play to force me to upgrade when Office 2000 still did everything that I needed it to do. It also lifted the immunity I had from whatever draconian authentication schemes Microsoft came up with and made me want all the more to become independent of the company.
So when OpenOffice 2.0 came out, I downloaded it. In addition to fixing the problems above and the ODF support, it also have a very handy conversion tool so I was able to convert all of my documents at once (saving old copies, of course!). Interoperability with Microsoft had improved marvelously. All but the most complicated of my Word documents converted perfectly and even those that didn’t convert quite right came a lot closer than with OOo 1.1. Ironically, conversion was better between Microsoft’s formatting (*.doc) and ODF (*.odt) than it was between the old OpenOffice formatting scheme (*.sxw) and and ODF.
I’ve been reasonably pleased with it and use it 90% of the time. I had intended at the same time to start transitioning away from Windows. That transition was not nearly as successful.
Soon I will write more thoroughly about what OpenOffice can and cannot do.
* - Turns out that this was a needless worry. StarOffice, as opposed to MS Office, allowed you to install the software on multiple computers provided that it was the same person using them.
** - I think that Microsoft has since announced that it will support ODF files natively, which could mean that I can send my ODF files directly without having to risk a conversion blip or taking the time to stamp any blips out. The area where this would be most helpful is with my resume.