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How to transfer ODT files with Google Docs and Microsoft Word Online

Andy Wolber explores how well Google Docs supports Open Document Format (ODF) files.

Google Drive and OpenDocument files

Open your favorite writing app — say, Google Docs — to create a new file. The powerful collaborative editing features work only inside a Google Doc. Want to work with the file elsewhere? You'll either need to export the file or access the document with programming (i.e., the Google Drive API).

Lift a cup of your favorite beverage — say, coffee — to sip the last drop. When you go to order more coffee, you learn that you can't order coffee just anywhere. You have to purchase from manufacturer-authorized sources.

Pick up your favorite book — say, an e-book — to read the latest novel. When you go to read the book on a different device, you discover that you can't read the e-book on just any e-reader. You may read only on devices the distributor supports.

Proprietary costs; Open frees

Control of a format or distribution channel can make it harder to use a competitive solution.

That's one problem of proprietary formats: a switch costs you time and/or money. You don't want to buy a new coffee maker to try different coffee, a new e-reader to read a different book, or new software to edit a new document.

Open formats or distribution channels make it easier for people to choose a different solution.

That's one promise of the open formats: your content exists independently of the software used to create the file. You're free to take your content and edit it with another app.

Public officials with the people's interests at heart prefer open formats and channels. In July 2014, the UK selected the "Open Document Format (ODF) for sharing or collaborating on government documents." The idea is that a move to open formats "will ensure that citizens and people working in government can use the applications that best meet their needs when they are viewing or working on documents together." (For more on this, see Jack Wallen's article from that same month: "Major win for open document format in the UK.")

Google Docs and ODF document test

Fortunately, Google re-enabled support for ODF in December 2014. That means you can leverage the collaborative capabilities of Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, then export your completed work to a file in an open, non-proprietary format.

The ideal document would be a file that works — and looks — the same in all applications. I tested how well an ODF file transfers information between Google Docs and Microsoft Word Online.

Spoiler alert: On balance, both Google Docs and Word Online handle ODT files reasonably well.

From Google Docs, exported to ODT...

I tested Google Docs' export feature with a sample document I created (view or download it, if you like). The sample included basic formatting: a list with items in bold, italic, underline, and linked. I inserted an image, which I re-sized and right-aligned, then formatted text to wrap around it. I also added a header, a footer with page numbering, a page break, a footnote, and a 4 x 4 table with text. Then I formatted four paragraphs as "Heading 1" and inserted a Table of Contents near the top of the document.

I saved the file (File | "Download as..." | "OpenDocument Format (.odt)") as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Figure A

Sample document created in Google Apps, then saved in ODT format.

... opened in Microsoft Word Online

Next, I uploaded the file to OneDrive and opened it with Microsoft Word Online (Figure B). When I opened the document to edit it in Word Online, I received a notice: "ODT Document Some compatibility issues could occur if you edit this file," followed by a link to details.

In the transition, two things changed:

  • The page number in the footer was misplaced: a line break was lost
  • The header appeared in a slightly different place on the page

Otherwise, the document contents transferred accurately.

Figure B

Figure B

Word Online displays an ODT file created in Google Docs.

From Microsoft Word Online, exported to ODT...

Next, I tested Word Online's ODT export feature with a sample document I created (view or download it, if you like). The sample included basic formatting: a list with items in bold, italic, underline, and linked. I inserted an image, which I re-sized and right-aligned. I also added a header, a footer with page numbering, a page break, a footnote, and a 4 x 4 table with text. Then I formatted four paragraphs as "Heading 1." The document contents differed from those of the Google Doc, since Word Online offers a different set of formatting features. I made the documents as similar as I could within the browser (Figure C).

Figure C

Figure C

Sample document created in Word Online, then saved in ODT format.

... opened in Google Docs

Next, I uploaded the file to Google Drive. When I opened the document to edit it in Google Docs, I immediately noticed a page break: my content started on page two, not page one. I moved my cursor down, deleted the blank page, then inspected the results.

As with the Google Docs to Word ODT file transition, two things changed:

  • Solid lines surrounded the footer
  • The header appeared in a slightly different place on the page

Otherwise, the document contents transferred accurately (Figure D).

Figure D

Figure D

Word Online displays an ODT file created in Google Docs.

Convert and Export

Google provides two ways to export Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides to their respective OpenDocument formats (.odt, ods, or .odp). You either export each file individually — as I did above — from the File | "Download as..." | "OpenDocument Format" option. Or, login to your Google Account and go to https://www.google.com/settings/takeout, then choose to export and convert Docs, Sheets, Forms, and Presentations to OpenDocument formats (Figure E). You may export any or all of your existing documents.

Figure E

Figure E

Google allows you to convert and export all of your existing Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides to OpenDocument file formats.

Your choice format for files?

The best way to share a document for other people to view is a basic HTML file online. The challenge begins when more than one person needs to edit a complex document: formats matter. Choose open formats to maximize access and minimize control. And wherever possible, buy a product — a coffee maker, e-reader, or software — that doesn't lock you in.

When you share files, what format do you use? Google Docs, Microsoft Office, OpenDocument format? Another system (Quip, text files, Markdown, etc.)? Do you use different formats for internal collaboration and external sharing? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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