A day in the office ... without Office

Updated: January 23, 2019

Consider the following claim: office work is synonymous with Microsoft Office, and it's not just because of the name. Over the past twenty-odd years, for most people laboring in a seated position in front of a computer monitor, the tools of the trade, apart from varying amounts of verbal nonsense, are the Office suite programs, most notably Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook. Take these away, and the galaxy collapses.

Whether you agree if this is for a good reason or not, the facts remain. Now, I decided to test whether this situation can be altered. In other words, I decided to try using LibreOffice and Google Docs for serious work. Extended, meaningful, serious work. Not just an odd document or two, but months of use and collaboration with real people, my nonexistent friends and some colleagues. While I do want to dedicate a separate article to Google's online suite, here, I'd like to give you an overview of what was it like to be on that Holiday site. If you dig the quote, you dig. So, can one ditch Microsoft Office? Or should one? Now, let's roll.

Teaser

Baseline

First, let me give you a brief overview of my typical "office" setup. Normally, I write fiction in LibreOffice Writer, and by that I mean books and short stories, not website content. There's no need for any great embellishment, just text. When I do need to send these files to editors, agents and alike, they are rinsed through Microsoft Word 2010 (the best of the bunch, including the more recent versions).

Non-fiction work, i.e. technical books fall into two buckets: 1) LaTeX and LyX for entirely self-published items 2) the likes of my Problem Solving and System Administration Ethics titles are done and conceived almost entirely in Microsoft Word, because they require a lot more precision and focus, and ultimately, they need to be easily accessible by the publisher. This is a no-nonsense constraint. I cannot have any styling lost converting files between different formats.

If I need to do graphics (including diagrams and alike), I will use all sorts of tools, including even something like Octave, but also Powerpoint, GIMP, and other programs. Equations are best done either using the built-in editor, or the aforementioned LaTeX. Now that covers the writing part. There's also collaboration.

Here, I decided to try a bold thing - which is part of this experiment. On the System Administration Ethics book, I am collaborating with a friend in a different country, so we are using the Internetz to communicate. We also decided to use Google Docs to share files, comment and edit each other's writing and such. Then, I've also recently configured a Slimbook Pro2 & Kubuntu setup, i.e. Linux, i.e. not Windows. That means that such a system cannot use locally installed Microsoft software - the cloud-based Microsoft Office Online is a really great option though, plus, as luck would have it, it also works just fine on Linux. Now there.

And so, LibreOffice and Google Docs gain even more focus due to these Linux-based restrictions, but not only. Finally, you have the full context for this experiment. Spurred by actual usage needs - and with meaningful, months-long projects at hand - I decided to examine the tech landscape, and you're now enjoying the fruits of my labor. Also worth reading Slimbook reports in parallel, that is.

LibreOffice

Overall, this was a rather disjointed experience. There are many things that don't work too well in LibreOffice, but the biggest issue is the lack of consistency among different programs in the suite. While I do very much like the 6.X branch, things aren't perfect. These include both functional and aesthetic problems.

First, on the Slimbook Pro2 machine, with a full HD display, scaling is a problem at the moment (in KDE). Once upon a time, there were issues with anti-aliasing and how these affect LibreOffice. Then, I also talked about making LibreOffice easier to use as well as installing and configuring new icon themes. Even so, with all these changes in place, LibreOffice still has a lot of visual niggles.

Writer is pretty much solid, but Calc is way behind. The cells are too small, regardless of whatever setting I choose. The document close button is tiny, a barely visible little x in the top right corner below the window controls. It is hard to adjust the view, and some things stay tiny no matter what. This is jarring, because there are three or four different sources of scaling, DPI and font size that can be tweaked in the system, and each one affects a different part of the interface, and then, some remain completely unaffected.

Sheet buttons

I also had to enable notebookbar separately - and this is not a global setting but more of a per-app setting, which adds to the feeling of disjointedness across the office suite. It would be much better if there was a consistent way to manage everything.

Notebookbar, separate setting

Second, functional issues are all over the place. I did mention the notebookbar & styles. That helps. But Calc does not have a sheet duplicate option, nor can it link to sheets and data sets from other files. What. Why not? You can also not detach a chart from the sheet and paste it as a separate sheet of its own, so hunting for graphics inside your document, especially if they have huge tables of data is tedious.

No chart to sheet option

No duplicate option

If you want to edit chart titles, the standard keyboard shortcuts did not work for me - I had to actually go through the right-click menu, which is a waste of mouse clicks. Then, F4 does not repeat the last action, like in Microsoft Office, which is often a huge time saver.

Lastly, LibreOffice Calc uses a single-click to navigate through folders - the old KDE default, whereas my desktop is configured for double clicks. But worse yet, ONLY Calc does this. Writer uses double clicks! What.

Finally, file conversion quality. You don't need to search far and wide. I talked about this in the first of my four Slimbook & Kubuntu usability reports. I took a very simple Powerpoint presentation, one of my own, created back in 2014, and imported into Impress. Text and images were misaligned. This is a simple document, without any embedded tables or graphs, without animations or transition effects, not even any special diagrams or text boxes. The big problem is, we talked about this years and years ago.

Google Docs

This wasn't a pristine experience at all, either. In Sheets, editing cells with hyperlinks is a pain. If you double-click a cell, it will open a weird window, where you can separately edit the hyperlink and the shown text. The format looks JSON or something, and I wanted to gouge my eyes out with an icecream spoon. If you do right click > edit link, you get a nicely formatted two-field prompt. So this is also a visual inconsistency in how Sheets work.

Sheets, hyperlink, double-click

Sheets, hyperlink, right click action

Editing dates and currency falls into the same category. Weird. I struggled with the date, in particular. Writing in a European format would switch me automatically to the US format, even though on hover, it would read correctly. Again, if you use the build-in calendar function, it will then display the dates the right way. Another inconsistency, plus it hurts the speed and the efficiency of the overall workflow.

Currencies

If you skip a cell in Sheets, you lose the auto-complete function for that column. Google Docs also does not remember the default zoom value for open documents - Word and Writer do this well. It is impossible to copy tables from Excel/Calc into Google Sheets. Hey, for that matter, it's impossible to copy & paste via the file menu in Firefox! You actually have to use keyboard shortcuts!

No copy & paste via menu

Then, autocorrect seems to be rather ... plebeian. It actually wanted to compact does not to doesn't, which is not (isn't) what I have in mind when writing technical books. Not only is it not a typo of any kind, this is actually a somewhat harmful suggestion. As I've noted in my Gmail new & old interface article, the whole AI thing needs a lot of rework to be useful and meaningful.

Autocorrect, wrong

Styles, limited

This is another big one. You are limited in the amount of styles you can use. There are only several templates, and you can modify them, but this is still nothing compared to how powerful and flexible this feature is in Office, or even LibreOffice for that matter.

Now, if you do upload a file created locally with either Office or LibreOffice, Google Docs will import those styles and show them, but you won't have the ability to edit them. This is really weird. So it's some hybrid sort of support, where you can use styles created externally but just not import them. Why?

Google Docs, styles

The biggest problem: speed

No matter how fast, streamlined and elegant the Web code is, it simply cannot match the speed of local applications. Because there will always be some network latency, no matter how slight. And you can feel this. Working with Google Docs is fine and all, but it never feels as brisk or snappy as Microsoft Office. For that matter, LibreOffice is also a tad slower. The tiniest differences that make all the difference.

On the other hand, the good stuff

Not all was bad, though. The whole working with other people thingie is good. After all, Google is all about data, and a huge part of this is connecting the dots between different people. So if you do want to share your stuff, this is where Google Docs shine.

You can use view/edit/suggest modes for your documents, so that other people can only read, make inline changes or add comments (with tracking), respectively. You also get a full history of all document changes and revisions, per editor. Sharing (collaboration) is easy, and you can add multiple people with different permissions, plus restrictions like copying, printing, time windows, etc.

Sharing

Version history

Google Docs did handle special characters and symbols well. Perhaps the search isn't as categorized as you get in the classic offline suites, but if you do use text qualifiers, you'll be able to find what you need or expect. Rather streamlined, I have to say.

Symbols

Now, there's a catch

You do have to remember that Microsoft Office is NOT a free product, except the online version, plus on the mobile. It costs money, and a hefty sum, too. Google Docs is a free product for Google account users, and LibreOffice is free for all, no strings attached. So the comparison isn't really straightforward. So yes, we can and should compare products to Microsoft Office to see whether they can actually be used to the same level of quality and functionality that people are used to working with Microsoft's suite. But then, the cost is another important consideration that cannot be lightly disregarded. If you cannot or do not want to pay for Office, then your options are rather limited, in that sense.

Google does have the business-oriented G Suite, and that one comes with some extras. But it's mostly about the ecosystem and storage and not so much about the pure functionality in the office suite programs. Still, it's something we'll talk about separately. Bottom line, when it comes to the bottom line, oh me love me puns, is that there's a whole dimension to the office suite usage that goes beyond functionality. And that's the price. Sometimes, it's justified, and in the case of Microsoft Office, very much so.

Conclusion

Having used pretty much every office suite and processor out there, including some really odd and old solutions, stuff like Word 2.0, WordPerfect and then some, I believe that Microsoft Office offers the most complete, most productive experience when it comes to office work. It's not perfect, but it is better than the rivals. Sometimes, it's the small things that make so much difference, and sometimes it's some rather big, glaring issues.

Technically, you can get around without Microsoft Office. In the end, what will dictate the choice is probably your business imperative. If you have to work with other people who depend on it, then you will also be restricted in the same way. If you don't, the questions of cost and efficiency come into play. I feel that being productive is a valuable commodity, and one worth paying for. If I can shave off seconds or minutes of time by using a superior product, then I will do so. If I can save myself frustration, doubly so. I wish I could say I've come enlightened from my non-Office experience, but the bittersweet truth is, at the end of the day, if you need non-trivial usecases and high productivity, at the moment, Microsoft Office is still the king of the document hill. Hopefully, one day that will change, but that's the Linux saga all over again.

Cheers.

You may also like: