My OpenOffice User Experience

For compatibility reasons, I was recently asked to use OpenOffice, rather than Pages, to do some writing. And I’m not impressed.

Generally, I don’t like to rag on open-source software, because hey, it’s free, it’s typically made by volunteers in their spare time, it’s not really fair to compare it to expensive proprietary products, etc. And there are a number of open-source packages I like, and besides, elsewhere on this site you’ll find source code I’ve made available myself.

But, I feel OpenOffice is fair game, because it started life as a proprietary product, wasn’t open sourced until version 5.x (and has had nearly a further decade to mature) and I gather it is still a feeder for proprietary products like StarOffice and Lotus Symphony. It also seems to be frequently waved around as an open-source success story.

This is how my initial encounter with it went:

  • Type OpenOffice into Google. Note that there are several sponsored links from dubious-looking organisations, raising instant red-flags (sponsored links cost them money. OpenOffice is free. They must get money from somewhere to pay for the links. What’s their scam?footnote 1). Ignore these and go to the official site.
  • The site is bland but clear enough, grab the download easily. File size is huge, mind.
  • The package downloads. Double-click it, expecting some hideous installer. Pleasantly surprised to find standard Mac-style drag-and-drop install.
  • Launch OpenOffice. Presented with hideous installer. Defeat snatched from jaws of victory! Sigh.
  • It wants me to fill out a registration form, because apparently feature-parity with commercial apps means implementing all the irritations, too. Select “I don’t want to register” and click through. A Terminal icon briefly pops up in the dock anyway, then vanishes. Then it locks up: beachball, spindump, no window on screen, the menu bar has some mysterious JRESomething in it.
  • Give it some time in case it’s just being very slow. Give up and Force Quit it. Try launching again.
  • It asks me to register again. Answer’s still no! Click through… this time it does not crash. Perhaps the first time was a freak accident?footnote 2
  • Finally, OpenOffice proper opens (after a brief trip through Progress Bar Land), with a new document wizard. Click Text Document. It lights up, but nothing happens. Look around for an OK or confirm button, but there isn’t one. After a few seconds, the window goes away, and then a document finally appears. Did I mention this is on a 2.4ghz Core 2 Duo with 4GB ram?

So here I am, finally with a fresh document open ready to type into, and I’ve already encountered crashes, slowness, thoughtless irritation and awkward UI. Not a good start.

Now, I expect a new program to take some time to learn, but I also expect it to assist in the process rather than hinder it with design idiocy, user-hostility and outright bugs.

Here are some of the issues I discovered in my first half-hour or so of using it:

Consistency is for the weak!

As you would expect, the Left Arrow key moves the cursor one character to the left. Alt+Left Arrow moves the cursor one word to the left. Shift+Left Arrow selects one character to the left. How would you expect to select one word to the left?

If you guessed Alt+Shift+Left Arrow, you guessed wrong! That does nothing at all! *Cmd*+Shift+Left Arrow selects a word to the left! But Cmd+Left Arrow moves a whole sentence to the left!

How would you open the Find dialog? Cmd+F in every native Mac application, is it Cmd+F in OpenOffice? Answer: Sometimes! If you’re in a text document, it works… but if you’re looking at the built-in help, Cmd+F opens the mathematical expression editor. Obviously.

(Also, a minor nit-pick while I’m at it: if your search text isn’t found, the error message that pops up — in a weird-looking misaligned dialog — reads “Search key not found” which irritates me doubly for using jargon when plain language should be used, and for not even being technically accurate, since the search text is not a key anyway. What’s wrong with: ‘”<Text you searched for>” not found.’?)

Help?! You?!

Talking of the help, despite the fact that Mac OS X “help books” are just folders of standard HTML (and therefore quite friendly for cross-platform developers to use without investing much platform-specific time), OpenOffice uses its own built-in help viewer. Which appears to be a document like any other to OpenOffice (albeit of a particular type).

The thing is — breaking the Mac OS X standard — OpenOffice’s dialog boxes are application-modal, in other words, they prevent you from interacting with any other part of the application while they’re open. Including the help, because it’s just another document in OpenOffice.

So you can’t have a dialog open, and read the help for that dialog, at the same time. If you arrange the windows carefully before the dialog opens, you can read some of it — but you’ll need to close the dialog, cancelling everything you’ve done, if you need to scroll the help down a bit.

Miscellaneous bugs

I select some text. I apply a style from the styles dropdown menu. Nothing happens. Or, sometimes, some details like colour or font size change, but other details like font face do not. There seems to be no clean delineation such as ‘paragraph styles change but character styles do not’, it’s just arbitrary. I select “Clear formatting” from the same dropdown menu, then select a style, and this time it works.

Sometimes, I can’t even select text properly. With one particular multi-line header, I’d drag across it, or click then shift-click to select a range, and only a few arbitrary pockets of misaligned text are highlighted.

If I have a bulleted list, with the default bullet type, and save the document, when I re-open it, the bullets have changed to “missing character in font” glyphs. I can restore them by reselecting the bullet type, but they’ll just keep reverting every time I reopen the document.

If I have a bulleted list, followed by a body-text paragraph, and I place the insertion-point at the start of the body-text and press <enter> to insert a new body-text paragraph between the bulleted list and the existing body-text, it does two stupid things: It inserts a bulleted item before the body and it inexplicably changes the indentation on the previous bulleted item.

This was just in the first few minutes, and I wasn’t even searching for problems. I’ve got some revisions to make to the document now, so I’m going to have to brave Open Office again, with change tracking enabled no less. I may be gone some time.

1. I suspect many of them use OpenOffice as ‘bait’ to lure people in, then try to sucker them into paying for “antivirus” software. Mm hm.

2. No — I had to install OpenOffice on another machine later, it also crashed on first launch in an identical manner. Suave!