Why LibreOffice/OpenOffice is so frustrating

As a believer in free software (note that I didn’t say “open source”), I have used some variant of OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice since 2005, as my principal word processor. Unlike the majority of users of Linux, I didn’t switch to free software because it offered me better software. In fact, it has consistently offered me worse software. Unlike the majority of people who use Linux or BSD as their primary operating system, I switched because I believed in the cause of free software. In January 1996, I first read the documents in the “Philosophy” section of the www.fsf.org website and they changed my thinking. Unfortunately in 1996, I had never heard of Linux and the software that I found on the www.gnu.org website seemed to be designed for UNIX, which didn’t run on my 386 laptop. I didn’t install Linux until 1999, when I found a Mandrake disk in the back of a book.

Installing Linux in 1999 was nothing like today. Today, you can install Linux on almost any machine, without resorting to manually editing configuration files. Today, you might have to fiddle with the wifi driver, the printer, or a couple peripheral components, but you rarely have trouble getting the basic system up and running. In 1999, it took me about 2 weeks to figure out how to install Linux, but I managed it.

As a person with geeky inclinations, I recall thinking that the system was fascinating, but it didn’t come with an office suite, which was the single most important piece of software for me. What it had was two tiny programs, AbiWord and Gnumeric, which were a laughable replacement for WordPerfect Office. Two minutes of playing with AbiWord convinced me that Linux was fun to play with, but I would never use it as my primary operating system, since I needed a real word processor.

For the next 6 years, I tried using Linux various times, but I could never give up WordPerfect, which didn’t run on Linux. Corel briefly offered WordPerfect 7 on Linux, then it disappeared, but I was never able to find a copy. In my opinion, WordPerfect in 1990 was a better word processor than MS Word or LibreOffice Writer two and a half decades later. It was software totally focused on the creation of documents. After a decade of using OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice, I still wish I was using WordPerfect. It had key combinations for everything I wanted to do, so I never had to touch the menu. It had Reveal Codes, so I could muck around in the formatting and fix any problem that arose. It had a great Macros system, so I could automate any repeatable action. I didn’t switch to Linux during graduate school, because I needed WordPerfect to write my papers. It was only later, when I didn’t have the constant pressure of churning out papers, that I started to switch over to OpenOffice.org.

I have a Windows partition on my machine, but I never use it. I booted up that Windows partition when I first got the computer 3 years ago to verify that everything worked and to download Linux, and haven’t touched it since. I run a Spanish-English dictionary program in Wine and I run an OCR program in Windows XP SP2 virtual machine. I use Skype and Adobe Acrobat in Linux. Other than those 4 programs, all my other software is free software (aside from a couple codecs). So I’m not going back to WordPerfect. Still I lament its loss.

Let me give a couple examples of why LibreOffice/OpenOffice writer simply doesn’t match WordPerfect:

I’m a computer programmer, so I love to play with macros. The first computer language I ever learned was the WordPerfect 5.1 Macro language. About 5 years about, the macro record feature in OpenOffice.org broke, and it has never been fixed since. It is easy to create a useful macro if you can first record a couple actions, then go and edit the code. If you have to create the code from scratch, it literally takes 10 times as long to look up the commands in help and figure out how to do each action. Once the Macro record feature broke, I have stopped using macros in any meaningful way. Having Macro record would literally save me hundreds of hours, since I repeat the same action over and over when formatting dictionaries.

In WordPerfect there was a key combination to insert a quotation. All my quotations looked the same with the same margins and the same size font. In LibreOffice/OpenOffice, there is a Quotation style, but there is no key combination or menu option to insert it. So I have to press F11, then find it in the list of styles and double click it to apply it to a paragraph. The problem is that it isn’t formatted, so I have to then edit the style and set the margins and reduce the font size. I end up almost never using the Quotation style, because it is too much trouble. Instead I manually adjust the margins and set the font size on every quotation, which means that all my quotations have irregular, manual formatting.

Almost all word processors have a print mode and an editing mode. In editing mode, the margins and footnotes disappear, which I find very convenient because it allows me to focus on the text I’m writing and avoid looking at page breaks, which can be very distracting. LO/OO Writer provides a Web Layout mode which also avoids showing the page breaks, but it is incredibly unstable and frequently crashes when displaying a complex document. Even worse, Web Layout mode flows the text the entire width of the open windows, which makes for very long lines when the current window is maximized on a wide screen. So there is no way to write without being distracted by page formatting in OO/LO Writer.

Even worse is the fact that the current version of LO Writer comes with a new feature which pops up a “Header page-style +” and “Footer page-style +” button, when the mouse passes over the bottom or top of any page. I constantly click this button by accident when I am trying to change to the first or last line on the page, and it inserts a new header or footer. This action can’t be undone by pressing Ctrl+Z, so then I have to manually format the page to delete the new header or footer. Unfortunately, there is no way to turn off this annoying “feature”.

There is no key combination to insert special characters, which I frequently have to insert, since I often work with foreign languages. In WordPerfect, the insert special character dialog allowed me to write “accenta” to find “á” or enter the Unicode number for a character, which was very convenient. If it was a character that I had to insert frequently, I would record the action with the macro editor and assign it to a key combination. In MS Word, I could memorize the Unicode number for the character, then write that number in the document and press Alt+X, to insert the special character in the document. LO/OO Writer doesn’t have any of these nice features.

First of all, there is no key combination to insert a special character, so I have to direct the mouse to Format > Special Character in the menu. Then, there is no search feature in the dialog box, so I can’t search for a special character either by its description or its Unicode number. It often takes me a couple minutes of scrolling to find a particular character. The characters in the dialog box are tiny, but there is no way to increase the character size. Each font has a different set of available characters, so I often have to change the font, and rescroll through the whole list to find the character that I want. I am saved from this drudgery, because I have now memorized the Unicode numbers for the characters which I want. In GNOME, I can press CTRL+SHIFT+U and enter the Unicode number, however this doesn’t work if using LO/OO Writer in KDE or Windows.

LO/OO Writer doesn’t offer a key combination or menu item to insert superscripted and subscripted characters, and there is no macro record feature to create one. So I have to use the mouse to go to Format > Character > Position and click “Superscript” or “Subscript”. I generally don’t write scientific papers, but I recently wrote a paper about global warming. I literally spent an hour, manually changing CO2, CH4 and N2O to CO2, CH4 and N2O. Because macro recording is broken, I didn’t create a macro to toggle subscripting on and off, like I would have done in WordPerfect or MS Word.

MS Word has a very handy feature in the sidebar that automatically records and displays any blocks of text which has been cut or pasted. I often find when editing a document that I have lost the text which I previously cut a couple actions before. For example, I see a block of text which I want to move. I cut that text, then start scrolling through the text. Then I see something else in the document which needs to be changed. In the course of fixing it, I cut and paste some text, thus loosing the original text which I cut. In LO/OO, the only solution is to repeatedly undo my actions to get back to the original cut and thus loosing any editing. To avoid this problem, I often have to save the current document with a new filename, then go and open a previous saved version of the document to get the block of text that I want and copy and paste it into the current document. I also find myself frequently opening new documents and copying text into them when I know that I don’t want to loose that text with frequent cuts and pastes.

Finally, the biggest problem is that OO/LO is extremely unstable with complex documents or many files open at the same time. After a decade of using OO/LO, I have observed that the problem has gotten worse over time. LibreOffice 3.5 seems to be extremely unstable. I recently wrote a 60 page document in version 3.5 and it crashed once every 30 minutes. I literally lost hours of work from these crashes. I finally changed the settings, so LO would automatically save my documents every 2 minutes, rather than the default 15 minutes, so I wouldn’t keep loosing text. A couple times, the recovery mechanismo didn’t have my document in the list of documents to recover, so I had to manually kill the process, and bring up the recovery again so the document would reappear in the list.

I know that the volunteers at LibreOffice has been reworking a lot of code, so I suspect that the current spike in instability is the product of code turnover, but I have little faith that it will ever become a very stable program, since I have been seeing crashes for years. I give kudos to the volunteers for all their hard work, but it is very stressful writing a document when you know that it can crash any minute and you can loose the last couple minutes of work.

As promoters of free software, we can’t close our eyes to the reality that our software has problems. The truth is that most people don’t care about web servers and compilers, but they do care about word processors, because almost everyone who uses a computer needs a decent word processor. Of course the I should have spent the last 2 hours doing something to improve LibreOffice–filing bug reports, helping out on the forums by answering questions or even taking the time to understand the code so I can hunt down bugs in the code and fix them. Instead, I took the easy way out and ranted rather helping to improve the software. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice are simply not as good as the proprietary software. It does make it harder to convince people to use free software, when it isn’t as good, and doesn’t look like it is going to get as good any time soon.

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