Office Thoughts

Every now and then I have a bout of, er... Officeness. Or rather, I find myself immersed in a veritable torrent of documentation that I read through, comment upon, revise and allow to re-spawn in the form of other documentation that I have to draft, refine, submit for review, print, present, etc.

And to cope with it, I sometimes bring stuff home. That doesn't happen much these days (especially with my switch to Citrix about a year ago), but it's enough for me to give stuff like NeoOffice a very thorough run through its paces.

After a couple of days trying to open and draft work documents with it, I'm starting to find Pages and the upcoming Office 2008 (which is still in private beta, and sadly nowhere near any of my Macs) more and more appealing.

You Get What You Pay For

The trouble with OpenOffice and NeoOffice isn't just file formats or the amount of CPU power it hoards to itself. It's the UI, or rather, the lack of polish it currently displays - and I'm not a fan of flashy UIs or a font kerning fundamentalist (those who work with me often wonder why I use Word almost exclusively in "draft font" mode and outline view).

No, it's the NeoOffice interface itself that keeps putting me off. I'm not talking about the lack of Aqua controls, or how the ones that are present seem (nearly every last one of them) to be subtly mis-aligned (something I find very distracting), or the green(!) handles on selected objects in Draw.

I'm even willing to overlook the way visual feedback is currently marred in NeoOffice by a somewhat odd choice of cursors (try resizing an object by the bottom-left corner, and watch as the cursor changes to a top right corner indicator). after all, OpenOffice (and any variations of it) is a tremendously complex piece of software that uses more programming languages than your average IT department, and such things are to be expected.

What is not to be expected, however, is that simple interaction (editing, reformatting, drawing shapes, etc.) feels so clunky and unpolished. Since I use Office 2003 in Citrix and Office 2007 in Vista on a daily basis, it is pretty easy for me to compare them with Office 2004 for the Mac and NeoOffice.

And yes, OpenOffice and NeoOffice have functional holes big enough to drive a boat through, as is the case of the lack of an outline mode (in the works since 2002), and some of those also apply to Pages.

Oldie But Goodie

What strikes me the most is that Office 2004, despite some bouts of Rosetta sluggishness, is consistently easier and quicker to get things done in than the others - and I mean that in a cross-platform sense. Besides the past couple of days looking at "free" stuff, I've had quite a few months in which to delve into the vagaries of the Office 2007 UI (I even got one of those "Certificates Of Appreciation" Microsoft sends out to their technical beta testers en masse), not to mention a recent need to re-familiarize myself with the murky depths of Word and Excel 2003.

So much so that my Mac reflexes bleed over to my office time, and I find myself trying to do stuff in Windows that clearly wasn't meant to be. And it isn't a matter of my using Mac Office most of the time and being too used to it (I only use Macs at home).

No, it's a matter of it being better designed. Sure, Office 2007 goes to the trouble of preserving legacy UI elements like Excel accelerator keys (typing Alt+E, S, V, E in quick succession still pastes and transposes the current range of cells), but even with the new ribbon UI, the current edition of Mac Office bests it in my eyes.

A Thousand Cuts

Which, in turn, means that using NeoOffice is somewhat akin to experiencing constant, low-level attrition. I'm fine with having different ways to manipulate and format text and tables, but I prefer them to be obvious instead of being borderline inscrutable (for instance, Mac Office's use of floating palettes is a stark contrast to NeoOffice's awkward dialog boxes, and one of the good points of Pages).

That said, I'm curious to see what the MacBU will eventually churn out as part of Office 2008. A number of e-mails I've swapped with other folk discussing its foreseeable shortcomings (the continuation of the laughably useless Entourage saga and its crippled Exchange integration, the lack of anything even resembling Visio and the future loss of Visual Basic scripting) remind me that it won't all be honey and roses - and yet, I'm confident that the bits that set it aside from "free" alternatives (i.e., the spit and polish) will make it worthwhile.

As always, we'll see.