Examine Open Office's interoperability with Microsoft Office

Take a look at how well Open Office applications interoperate with Microsoft Office.

Open Office is the open source version of Sun's Star Office and the basis for other open source office suites like SOT Office. Open Office has the advantage of being one of the few office suites that can run on Windows (9x/ME/NT/2000/XP), Linux, Solaris, and Mac OS X. Furthermore, Open Office has the ability to open and save Microsoft Office documents, PDF files, and Macromedia Flash SWF files. Being both a stand-alone product and a core component of other suites makes it an ideal choice for companies that need options, simplified licensing, and compatibility.

But just how compatible is Open Office? An internal rollout is fine, because any full implementation of a software suite ensures internal compatibility, but no one operates in a vacuum. Let's test how well Open Office can interoperate with Microsoft Office.

Learn more about Star Office and SOT Office
You can learn more about Sun's Star Office 6.0 and SOT Office by reading the following TechRepublic articles and columns:

"Choose the right word processor: WordPerfect, StarOffice Writer, or Word XP"
"Choose the right spreadsheet: Excel XP, Quattro Pro 9, or Calc 6"
"Choose the right presentation program: PowerPoint, Presentations, or Impress
"SOT Office offers quality and compatibility at a perfect price--free"

Testing process
Test documents were created and printed in the Microsoft Office 2000 versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. They were then opened and printed in Open Office for comparison. Changes were made in Open Office and the files reopened by Microsoft Office. I also tested Open Office's PDF print accuracy and checked the Flash SWF files produced by Open Office presentation software.

Text documents
Grade: A The test examined a basic document with headers, footers, automatic page numbering, variable fonts, use of basic highlighting like bold and italic text, and embedded charts and tables. I also tested multicolumn documents and outlines. Open Office handled all of these without a problem. Prints matched identically and the re-import occurred without a hitch. Not surprisingly, Word 2000 and XP files were also interchangeable.

Grade: B Spreadsheets were fairly compatible. Open Office processed charts, fonts, highlights, hidden columns, and protected worksheets flawlessly. Mathematical, logical, and lookup functions worked well, but we found that financial functions may be spotty. In particular, the depreciation function wouldn't work in Open Office, despite appearing to have the same format and structure.

Password-protected Excel 2000 files completely refused to open in Open Office, but protected Excel XP workbooks could be unprotected and manipulated without the password. Excel XP reacted normally to Excel 2000 files and vice versa.

Grade: C+ All standard uses of PowerPoint seemed to be compatible. The layouts, fonts, embedded graphics, and notes converted flawlessly. Slide transitions converted as well, complete with the stock sound effects. Open Office cannot, however, use multimedia files embedded in PowerPoint—even multimedia files that Open Office supports. Nor could either version of PowerPoint access multimedia files embedded in Open Office.

PowerPoint 2000 and XP could exchange files with AVIs, WAVs, MIDs, and RMIs. Embedded MPGs were problematic to either version, even when the original file could be run. I experienced this problem going either to or from 2000 to XP. It might be possible to massage either Open Office or PowerPoint by playing with codecs, but that goes past the point of being "easy to use."

Open Office does have two saving graces for Presentation compatibility—it can export to Flash or PDF. While it loses animations and sounds, it creates highly portable and very Web-friendly formats. The SWF and PDF version of the test presentation was half the size of either the PowerPoint or Open Office Presentation files, even with the transitions, sound effects, and graphics stripped out.

Grade: A Output compatibility was very high. All PDF exported documents opened without flaws in Adobe Acrobat Reader 5 and 6. Flash files worked in Internet Explorer and Mozilla-based browsers. Printed documents were universally identical between office suites. Someone on the outside would be unable to tell if you were using Microsoft Office or Open Office.

Overall compatibility
Grade: B+ Open Office does a good job of being compatible with MS Office, with only a few more problems that you might experience switching between versions of MS Office. The few problems experienced would not inconvenience 99 percent of the users out there.

PowerPoint experienced the biggest problems, but none that would be more than a minor inconvenience in an intercompany situation, because few presentations for external review include multimedia, and the multimedia file can be provided separately, if necessary. The Excel compatibility issues might impact some accountants who rely on the embedded functions.

Many businesses could switch to Open Office with no significant problems communicating with the outside world. Naturally, not every company would be served by Open Office; accountants, public relations firms, and consultants should do what good consultants do and be prepared to adapt to their clients. In the future this might include adapting to a client who has standardized on Open Office.