Office Suite Compatibility and Incompatibility?
by Alan German
For a number
of years I have been routinely using an office suite that
is not the one produced by Microsoft. Initially, I used
OpenOffice but then, around 2010, when the open-source
community forked this software, I switched to the newer LibreOffice.
In my experience, while trying to use the open-source
office suite and exchanging files with users of MS
Office, there have always been incompatibilities between
files produced by the two products. I decided to explore
how these stack up between recent versions of MS Office
and LibreOffice: (a) to identify any real show-stoppers,
or (b) to see if there are merely cosmetic differences
that are inconsequential for most regular users.
My exploration focuses on two portions of each office
suite, the word processor and the spreadsheet, since I
consider these to be the most useful - and most used -
parts of the package. So, we are going to compare the
basics of LibreOffice Writer and Calc against those of
Microsoft Word and Excel.
My starting point was to create a word-processing
document containing simple text, bold-facing and italic,
a table, embedded graphic images, some drawn-in lines,
and a couple of hyperlinks. For the purposes of this
exercise, the file was a list of tasks related to OPCUG's
meeting programme and newsletter. The file was produced
using Writer from LibreOffice Version 126.96.36.199, and was
stored as help_wanted.odt (Open Document Text - the
native text file format for Writer).
The first incompatibility was identified when I tried to
open this ODT file with Word from Microsoft Office 2010.
Although, nominally, Word supports the ODT file format,
trying to open the file produced the error message:
"The file help_wanted.odt cannot be opened because
there are problems with the contents." And, viewing
the details of the error displayed: "Details - The
file is corrupt and cannot be opened."
A subsequent message stated: "Do you want to recover
the contents of this document? If you trust the source of
this document, click Yes." Now, my problem was that
I trusted the source of the document implicitly. What I
didn't trust was Word's ability to maintain the content
and formatting of my original file.
I saved a copy of the original file as help_wanted2.odt
and had Word open this file. The file displayed
correctly, so I re-saved the file as an ODT file from
Word. However, the second time I opened this file in Word
the two lines drawn across part of the first page had
been truncated to appear as long dashes. Opening this
revised file in Writer displayed the two lines correctly;
however, the two graphics in the file were displayed
larger than they should have been so that they crowded
the text somewhat.
The work-around for these formatting issues turned out to
be very simple. In LibreOffice, store the file as
help_wanted.doc [in the Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP/2003
(.doc) (*.doc) file format] and then open the DOC file in
However, this whole situation is rather bizarre. Word can
create an ODT file that both it and Writer can open (I
tested this!), but Word refuses to recognize an ODT file
initially created by Writer. So much for document
standards in Redmond!
Other than the above-noted glitch, the two files seem to
display identically. So, the conclusion from this rather
simple test is that you can use LibreOffice and exchange
your files with MS Word users. Just be sure to use .doc
for the file format!
The test for LibreOffice Calc
consisted of opening the current summary of the club's
financial accounts, the file opcug.ods (an Open Document
Spreadsheet). Once again, when trying to open this
LibreOffice file, Microsoft's program reported that:
"Excel found unreadable content in 'opcug.ods'"
and offered to "recover the contents of this
Allowing Excel to undertake this task proved to be pretty
much a disaster. At first glance the spreadsheet appeared
to display correctly, but there was a real problem.
When I tried to change
one of the amounts in the spreadsheet, I noticed that the
associated total didn't change. A little exploration
determined that the conversion process had maintained the
cell values, but it had eliminated all of the underlying
formulae! Now, the "recovered" spreadsheet
looks pretty, but since it no longer has any potential
for calculations, the resulting file is basically
Interestingly, some of the cell formatting remained in
place. For example, the yellow highlighting for the
sub-totals in Column M were displayed, and a conditional
format for testing the account balance in Cell G28 was
still set. This cell compares the running total of the
accounts (Cell B19) to the current totals of the bank
accounts (Cell B28). If these amounts match, Cell G28
displays CORRECT in black but, if there is an imbalance,
the cell displays INCORRECT in red. The conditional
formatting was in place in Excel but, of course, with no
calculations being made in the spreadsheet, Cell G28 was
permanently fixed as CORRECT. This is an admirable
situation for the club's Treasurer, but it is unlikely to
inspire much confidence from the Board of Directors when
they review the monthly summary of the club's accounts!
Once again, the "solution" is to open the ODS
file in Calc and save it as an XLS file [Microsoft Excel
97/2000/XP/2003 (.xls) (*.xls)]. Excel will then open the
XLS file and maintain all of the spreadsheet's
attributes. So, as before, the moral of this story is
that you can use LibreOffice Calc to create and exchange
files with MS Excel users but be sure, in this case
especially, to use the .xls file format.
The final outcome is therefore that there remain some
inconsistencies between Microsoft Office and LibreOffice.
In particular, it depends on which module you are using
(word processor or spreadsheet), and which file format
(native Microsoft or Open Document) with which you wish
to create your file, as to how serious these
inconsistencies affect the final product, and hence the
ability to exchange the file between the two office
suites. For my part I see the main problem as Microsoft
Office not properly supporting the Open Document
standard. This is regrettable, but I have to say not
LibreOffice (Open Source)
Originally published: October, 2012
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The opinions expressed in these reviews
do not necessarily represent the views of the
Ottawa PC Users' Group or its members.