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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, 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 MS Word.

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 workbook".

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 useless.

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 unexpected!

Bottom Line:

LibreOffice (Open Source)
Version 3.6.1

Originally published: October, 2012

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