The office suites disaster

I was recently involved in the preparation of a project proposal, i.e, the attempt to obtain external funding for a certain research project. This particular project is a joint initiative of two academic institutions, and after having agreed that we would like to collaborate, a practical question arose. How should we prepare the documents required for the proposal?

The youngest of us proposed to use Google Docs (“it's so convenient”), but this proposal just received hems and haws from all others. My colleague then remarked, with an apologetic smile, that I would work exclusively with LaTeX. Our benjamin cheerfully chimed in and suggested Authorea. Once again, his proposal was met with limited enthusiasm. I gleefully added CoCalc as another LaTeX-based collaborative cloud service and briefly enjoyed the embarrassed silence that followed. After a few seconds I hastened to add that I, being foreseeably only responsible for a minor part of the proposal, would agree to anything with which the majority would feel comfortable with (which, in hindsight, was entirely besides the point).

In the end, we decided to use a Microsoft Sharepoint server run by our partner institution. I didn't connect to it myself, but was told by my colleague that the comments and tracking features didn't work correctly. And so we ended up with good ol' (cough) Microsoft Word as the least common denominator.

Well, I have LibreOffice (LO) on all of my systems, which should do for a simple document like the one we would create. To be on the safe side, I've ordered a license for Softmaker Office (SMO) which is praised for being largely compatible with MS Office (MSO), and which I planned to test anyway in my function as IT strategy officer (muhaha). Besides, in the office I have Microsoft Word 2007 available in a virtual machine running Windows 7. So what could go wrong?

At the very beginning, our document contained only text with minimal formatting, and was displayed with only insignificant differences on MSO and LO. After a few iterations, comments and the track of changes became longer than the actual text. That's when the problems started.

We were in the middle of an intense discussion when I noticed that, from my view, it just didn't seem to make any sense. My coworkers were discussing item (1) of an enumerated list, but their arguments revolved around an entirely different subject. When the discussion moved to item (2), I suddenly understood the origin of this confusion. LO, apparently triggered by a deletion just prior to the list, had removed the first entry, and my list thus only consisted of items (2)–(7), but LO enumerated them as (1)–(6). Gnarf.

Since my SMO order had not yet been approved (it's no problem to order MSO licences for €50,000, but an unknown product for €49.99 stirs up the entire administration), I decided to open and edit the proposal by MSO 2007. Only to discover that my colleagues, using MSO 2013 and 2016, talked about a paragraph that simply didn't exist in my version of the document. The excessive tracking also broke compatibility to MSO 2007. I wasn't too surprised, but at this point I really looked forward to SMO.

When the license finally arrived, we were busy with creating figures. A simple sketch created by our youngster in Powerpoint 2016 looked more like surreal modern art in LO, and not much better in MSO 2007. But in SMO, it was missing altogether. What the hell?

It turned out that the much acclaimed SMO has serious deficiencies with vector graphics, particularly under Linux. This flaw, together with the missing formula editor, makes SMO basically unusable in a scientific environment. That's a pity, since SMO is responsive and has a flexible and intuitive user interface.

Anyway, with the deadline approaching rapidly, my colleagues started to work on the proposal over the weekend at home. It turned out that none of them had MSO at home, so they all used LO. Now everyone's printed version deviated in one way or the other from the master copy on ownCloud, and we had to carefully compare the content, line by line, in the subsequent discussion.

Miserable pathetic fools! Why on earth didn't we agree at the outset of this endeavour to use LO? We could have agreed even on the same exact version to use. Our work on the proposal would have been easier and much more efficient. And instead of creating figures the hard way with Powerpoint, we could have used a full-scale vector graphics suite such as Inkscape, since recent versions of LO support the svg format. Equations could have been handled with TeXMaths, which allows users to insert any kind of math losslessly in an LO document. Here's a slide composed exclusively of vector graphic elements:


No, I did not suddenly become an enthusiastic user and advocate of LO. On the contrary, I still firmly believe that for the task at hand, LaTeX would have been most appropriate and convenient solution. However, LO would have obviously been a much more rational choice than MSO.

When I said that aloud, my colleagues gave me this 'oh-my-god-now-he's-going-mad' look. Normal people accept LO for personal use, but not for a professional one. Why? Well, they have this deeply internalized believe that what you get is what you pay for. Free software is for amateurs and nerds, but as a professional, one uses professional software! Oh wait ...