Office suites (Word, Excel, Apple, Google) in 2016: Power-user experience

Every week, I have to use six different Office Software Suites:

  1. At school: Microsoft Office 2013
  2. At university: Microsoft Office 365
  3. At work: OpenOffice
  4. At home: LibreOffice
  5. Everywhere: Apple Keynote
  6. Everywhere: Google Docs

As an expert computer user (former SysAdmin), I’m often asked for help by people with non-computing backgrounds. When they see how many different suites I’m using, they’re … surprised, to say the least. Here’s a quick snapshot of what and why.

My history

I’ve been using Office since Excel version 2.0 (which ran from the command-line).

In the late 1990’s, I worked as a temp secretary, and saw a lot of offices at different companies. Office 95 was the last serious improvement we saw in Microsoft’s software. Everything since then has added features of dubious value. Microsoft had to justify regular $500 upgrade fees per person. It wasn’t until 2000’s that StarOffice/OpenOffice made significant inroads in giving businesses a viable, cheap/free, alternative.

Operating System

No matter what Microsoft marketing tells you, there has never been a fully-working, up-to-date version of Microsoft Office for Apple computers. Is this Microsoft’s fault? Apple’s? Both – probably. If you have Macs anywhere in your business, you cannot afford to go Microsoft-only.

Office 2013 for Windows

I hate having to teach lessons where children fall to pieces trying to use the absurdly badly-designed UI and UX.

I hate being asked “but WHY is that button not where it should be?”, “WHY can’t I click over here, when normally I can?” … because usually the only true answer is “because a Manager at Microsoft had to justify their salary by moving it from where you expected, and there was nowhere good for it to go”. With older children, you can give them some honesty; the younger ones lack the ability to deal with such nuance.

But UK schools have been forced into a very bad contract with Microsoft, thanks to some very bad decisions by successive UK goverments (both Labout and Conservative). The docs are public – Microsoft effectively extorts tens of millions of dollars a year from UK schools and teachers, to no net benefit.

(if Bill Gates really wanted to improve education, he could start by cancelling Microsoft’s immoral long-term contracts with schools)

OpenOffice

Free, open-source. Politically neutral, not owned by any major American company with selfish aims.

On Mac, this is the most reliable, least buggy, fastest implementation of Office.

It is MUCH faster than Microsoft’s official (latest tested with Office 2013 last year, extensively). It is also MUCH less buggy – frequently opening and fixing files that were authored in Office 2013, and Office 2013 then corrupted and could no longer open!

However, many of the lead authors jumped-ship to LibreOffice, and maintenance + feature improvements lag behind LO.

LibreOffice

Free, open-source. In theory, has every feature of OpenOffice – started from same source code.

In practice, on Mac: more buggy, with much worse UX (many icons that in OO are very clear have become absurd abstract monstrosities in LO. First rule – “User must be able to understand icon at a glance” – often fails).

HOWEVER: has MUCH better support for opening the files created by latest Microsoft versions. Microsoft keeps adding features and non-backwards-compatible bits. OO doesn’t (can’t?) keep up, but LO does.

Sadly: “better” does not always mean “good enough”. E.g. 2015/2016 versions: if you edit a Word .docx in LO, and check the printing setup, then open in Word … the printing and layout is usually wrong by 10-20%. This makes your 1 page document 1-and-a-bit pages. Your 2-side document is now 2.3 sides … stuff like this is a signifcant problem for doc-sharing.

Office 365

Office 365 is Microsoft’s panic-move because Google Docs was destroying them in the market.

I have to use it because many UK schools and Universities have been seduced into adopting it, for “free or almost free” (trouble lurks behind that word “almost”).

It sucks – not because its badly written; I suspect it’s extremely well written, but the original idea was absurd. Don’t use it for anything if you can avoid it – unlike Google Docs, its very slow and buggy. I suspect because it tries to implement every single feature of old Microsoft Office in the web browser – and that’s a lot of code, much of it outdated and slow.

Keynote

Keynote is Apple’s presentation software. PowerPoint 2016 is getting close in some areas, but my laptop is running the 10-years-ago version of Keynote, and Powerpoint hasn’t caught up yet!

Any presentation I write – even when it has to be delivered on PowerPoint on a Windows machine – is significantly faster to write in Keynote, export to PowerPoint, open in PowerPoint, fix up incompatibilities … than to write in PowerPoint.

(NB: I’ve been using PowerPoint for almost 20 years, and Keynote for a little over 10 years; I am fairly productive in both. But keynote wins time and again – better UX!)

Google Docs

Originally free, then free and paid, and now … who knows?

Google keeps making scary noises here – e.g. Google Docs officially no longer exists; we’re supposed to say “Google Drive” (because Drive is unpopular, and Google Marketing is trying to prop it up). How long will Docs live on?

Most companies and schools I see mostly use just one part of Docs: the spreadsheets. Faster than any online Excel, and much more user-friendly, with live editing by multiple people. Excellent!

It’s missing many of Excel’s features – most of the advanced stuff – so it is no replacement for some. But for most people, doing ordinary work, it’s “what you need and no more”.

Conclusion

The era of monolithic Office Suite software is clearly over; we’re mixing-and-matching based on use-case.

From memory, the era never truly existed – it was conceived as a marketing/sales scam to lock-in businesses to one proprietary platform (difficult to do, but smart; Microsoft deserved to make billions out of that). It’s taken a decade or two to undo the damage that Microsoft did to the world of people who use computers to do “work”, but we’re there.

So … don’t be afraid to mix and match. Do learn what the lowest common multiple is for each file-format – for instance, an Office 95 doc can be opened by anything, anywhere, usually with zero corruption and bugs, whereas a docx is much less global. A .CSV file is universal, suppored not just by software, but understood by webservers and apps, but a .xlsx is not.

One thought on “Office suites (Word, Excel, Apple, Google) in 2016: Power-user experience

  1. Andrew Crystall

    Interesting – I’ve found LO to be far, far less crash prone (especially in image-heavy presentations) than OO, but of course I’m primarily a PC user.

    Honestly, though, I just print anything I’ll be displaying on Mac to PDF, it’s far easier than trying to negotiate software versions.

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