Updated: November 19, 2012
When people evaluate software for their own need and run X vs. Y checks, they always do it from their own perspective, placing their own needs at the forefront. They are of course doing the one sensible thing, but they are wrong. When you test software, you must ask yourselves how many people will be affected by that use?
If the answer is one, then you can proceed with your own evaluation. If the answer is more than one, then the scale changes instantly and completely, and it's no longer a question what everyone needs or things, it's the simple of matter what the weakest link in your user pool needs. Let me elaborate.
Real life: Microsoft Office
For most people, Microsoft Office Word is synonymous with word processing in general. They do not know or care that there used to be software like WordPerfect, or that some people run LibreOffice, AbiWord, and many other programs. For them, .doc is all they know and will ever open. Do not even try to tempt them with .rtf files, you might get into some serious trouble.
In this reality, you must work with such people, sometimes, if the count of affected users exceeds one. You might be forced to send them your text documents. And when I say text, it means a binary format of some kind used by a word processing software. And when I say word processing, I mean Word. Microsoft, Office, Word.
Since Oracle is despised in the open-source community, and most of the time for a good reason, OpenOffice stopped being a program of choice for people who wanted a free office suite, and it became LibreOffice. The two are very similar, although LibreOffice has seen more development recently. Therefore, for people who are fond of free programs, they will most likely be using LibreOffice to create their documents.
LibreOffice is capable of saving files in both DOC and DOCX format, so in theory, everything should be fine. You do what you need, you save the files and then you send them over to your colleagues and friends. In an ideal world, the transformation is seamless. But in the less ideal world, even with the binary format fully known, bugs happen. With Microsoft format being closed source, things are even worse. You move away from the safe zone of 100% compatibility into guesswork. The only question remaining is, can you afford guesswork? Let me rephrase that. Can YOUR colleagues afford it?
When you want to save your ODF file in the DOC format, you are warned that some elements might be lost. It is only expected in the imperfect world of different formats and closed-source coding. So you might lose something. Will this be an important graph or a comment that your friends and business partners will need? Let's find out.
I will not be showing you a hundred examples where it works well. I've already written a handsome number of articles that explain how you can improve the compatibility between different office suites. What matters is the stuff that does not work. Maybe not always, maybe only in 1 out of 9,000 cases, but still.
Anyhow, so I've encountered the following quirks:
- Some of the special characters are not preserved, like three dots (...)
- Tracking changes are not preserved
- Comments are not always preserved
- Page breaks, tabulation, spacing might change
And please note that these problems are not consistent, depending ever so slightly on various factors like: the operating system - Windows vs. Linux; software used to create the original document, even if the document was later used and tweaked in other word processing programs - LibreOffice vs. OpenOffice vs. AbiWord and so forth; formatting elements used in the text; who knows what else.
So it comes down to how much you can afford to compromise or lose. But most of the time, when it comes to serious business, you cannot afford to compromise at all. For instance, book submissions and query letters, a topic I am most fond of, are almost exclusively requested in DOC format. You surely do not wish to bet a multi-million project success on a badly converted end-of-line character or similar little issues that make no difference to someone typing to their own pleasure.
Hence, you cannot compromise. You must try something else.
The other way around
As it happens, from Microsoft Office 2007 onwards, this suite can import ODF files without the use of third-party converters. So perhaps all you want or need to do is send your work to someone saved in the original format, which would be ODF of some sort?
Well, let me show you what happens when you try to open a perfectly healthy LibreOffice Writer file in Microsoft Office 2010. This is the string of errors that comes up:
Splendid. Imagine the horror of a casual, non-techie user seeing this kind of warning before their eyes. Instant failure. Anyone trying to open my ODF file would think there's something wrong with it.
The thing is, there's nothing wrong with it, but it was first conceived in OpenOffice 3.2 on Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.04, then opened and saved some more in LibreOffice 3.4 on Windows 7. Other files open without this warning. And you're left with the forever-doubt, what you might be missing or losing that you will notice but someone who received the file on the other end surely will.
That's not all
If you save files in ODF format in LibreOffice, they will have a certain size. Try the same in AbiWord, you get a different size. Try opening the AbiWord-ed ODF file in LibreOffice and you will most likely fail. Save a DOC file in LibreOffice and it will differ from a native one saved in Microsoft Word by as much as 20% in size. Your best bet is probably to use Google Docs and save the files using it. But this means cloud and all that nonsense.
Now, this brings us to - proper document writing. You should not be using word processors at all, if possible, instead focus on LaTeX and LyX and suchlike and then convert your work to PDF and send people what-you-see-is-what-you-get stuff. But what about collaboration? Things get more complicated there. Not the reality we live in.
You might like these articles:
Go-oo - OpenOffice with a twist
Introduction to LibreOffice; a new review is coming soon
AbiWord - a mighty little program
As you may have noticed, there wasn't a single word of comparison between the features of Microsoft Office and LibreOffice, because that's never the issue. People tend to focus on these technical bits, when the more cardinal core question is: what must you use? If the answer is Microsoft Office, then it doesn't matter how good or bad it is.
In our world, with the market dominated by Microsoft Office, you must use Word for your documents. You may like it or not, deny it or not, but at the end of the day, people on the other end, the weakest link in your chain, will demand it, and they don't care about GPL or portability or anything else. For casual use, any word-processing software will work. But there will always be that one case where you must use Microsoft Office.
The same thing is quite common in other segments of the computing market, where a single brand leads the board. PC is synonymous with Windows, Flash is always Adobe Flash, PDF is almost uniquely Adobe Acrobat Reader, search engine is Google. You must deal with this reality with elegance, rather than ignore it. If your relations with a second party depends on a common format, then use it you must, Yoda style.
In a battle between Microsoft Office and LibreOffice, the one that wins is the money. Ask whoever pays what they want and then politely indulge them. That's how it is. And if you want a real feature-by-feature comparison, do send me emails, and I will consider it. For the time being, consider superior document processing and use LyX.