As a Free Software user, I obviously frown upon Microsoft Office and its file formats. Primarily because they claim to be open standards, when in practice Microsoft (intentionally) doesn’t implement their own specification appropriately.
As you may understand, this ensures incompatibility with other office suites, such as LibreOffice. Because even if LibreOffice would be able to open Microsoft Office files completely according to the specification, Microsoft Office doesn’t save them that way!
Having to deal with MS Office files should therefore always be kept to a minimum. Just ask
whoever sends you one to export it as a PDF instead. Most people will comply when you ask nicely, but of course there will always be twits who refuse to make any kind of effort. In that case, I would advise to simply tell the other person that you will not continue the collaboration until he/she sends you a working document.
But in some cases (for example, when you’re in school and teachers have no respect for their students’ privacy and security), you will pretty much be forced to deal with Microsoft’s obfuscuated file formats. So you’ll have to make the best of it.
Always use the latest version of LibreOffice
Microsoft’s OOXML format is a moving target, with Microsoft executives coming up with new ways to hinder interoperability and increase their vendor lock-in every day. So LibreOffice’s OOXML support will never be ‘done’, as the “standard” is subject to changes all the time. Undocumented changes, because the standard itself stays the same, but Microsoft’s intentional misimplementations do not.
Luckily, LibreOffice is much closer to bearable OOXML support than it was years ago. Most non-complex documents will render without any noticeable issues (as long as you have all the fonts), but as soon as you have to deal with macros and other complex stuff, well… may the heavens have mercy.
That’s why it’s important to keep LibreOffice up to date, because every new release comes with significantly improved OOXML support (including workarounds for Microsoft latest intentional bugs). Most GNU/Linux distributions do not keep LibreOffice updated aside from point releases, which means you can be stuck with the same major release for years.
When you’re running Debian, you’re best off enabling the backports repository and installing the LibreOffice packages from there.
# /etc/apt/sources.list [...] deb http://ftp.nl.debian.org/debian/ wheezy-backports main deb-src http://ftp.nl.debian.org/debian/ wheezy-backports main [...]
sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get install -t wheezy-backports libreoffice
When you’re running Ubuntu, simply add the LibreOffice stable PPA and update your packages.
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:libreoffice/ppa
sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
I don’t really know a lot about RPM distros, but I’m sure that Fedora and SuSE have their own ways of doing this. Arch and Gentoo probably don’t need any of this, being rolling releases and thus always shipping the latest packages in the main repositories.
Install compatibility fonts
Although I’m not a big fan of Google, they do have their upsides. For instance, they’ve developed a bunch of free and open source fonts for Chrome OS which are metrically compatible with a lot of the proprietary/patented stuff that Microsoft shoves down our throats. Unlike Liberation, the Croscore fonts support – in addition to Arial, Times, and Courier – Calibri and Cambria; Microsoft’s patented default fonts used by nearly everyone since 2007. Having decent substitutes for Calibri and Cambria increases Microsoft Office compatibility immensely.
On Debian/Ubuntu, the installation is trivial:
sudo apt-get install fonts-croscore fonts-crosextra-caladea fonts-crosextra-carlito
This will install the Arimo, Tinos, Cousine, Carlito, and Caladea fonts: metrically compatible substitutes for Arial, Times New Roman, Courier New, Calibri, and Cambria respectively. Those are by far the most-used fonts by Microsoft users.
Using LibreOffice 4.3 with the Croscore fonts, I have had little to no issues with regular docx documents, xlsx spreadsheets and pptx slideshows, and I haven’t heard about a lot of issues by family members and customers in the last months either.
The only things that still royally screw stuff up, are macros, mixed layouts (some pages in portrait mode and some others in landscape mode), and complex tables and graphs.
In case of emergency: Microsoft Office Online
Because I found Microsoft’s usage terms to be completely unacceptable, I couldn’t proceed. But I asked a friend that could live with Microsoft’s demands to test
Microsoft Office Online on my Debian machine with only the main repository enabled. And it hurts to say this, but Microsoft’s service works perfectly on a computer with 100% Free Software. In fact, it can even be used to transform unreadable macro-enabled documents into pixel-perfect PDF’s.
To get started with
MS Office Online, simply go to the intro page, choose the web application you want to use, and sign in with a Microsoft account. (In this case, my friend’s.) I asked him to type some sample text:
Keep in mind though that everything you upload or type here will be saved on an American server indefinitely (there’s no such thing as a delete button that actually deletes), and everything will most likely be forwarded to the NSA automatically, because you are a terrorist. It’s no safer than Google Docs or any other proprietary cloud service.
So my advice will most certainly be that you should never use Microsoft Office Online for any kind of personal
data. Proprietary software is never secure, regardless of it being a desktop application or a cloud service.
Using Microsoft Office Online to create usable PDF’s from unworkable documents
When somebody for some reason sends you a macro-enabled Microsoft Office document, you can be pretty sure that LibreOffice isn’t going to help you. The obvious first step would be to ask for a PDF repeatedly, but in case the other person ignores all your requests and you’re not in a position to tell them to go fork themselves, Microsoft Office Online will most likely be able to get you a working PDF.
Let’s test a docm file that another friend received from the college he attends, which is incredibly hostile to Free Software users. Even though LibreOffice tries its best, and after a lot of editing the document will finally look fair enough, the initial rendering is horrible and completely unsuitable for a non-technical user to solve.
The biggest problem in this case was the mixed layout. Some pages were in landscape mode, while others were in portrait mode. Apparently LibreOffice is unable to do this with OOXML
documents. After converting the document to an odt file and adding a bunch of manual breaks, I was able to reproduce the way it should probably have looked like. But like I said, the average user would most likely not have been able to.
So I asked my friend to open this same document with Word Online on my computer. And I’m not sure if this should make me happy or sad, but it works without an issue.
We obvioulsy don’t want to work with Word Online any longer than we have to, so the only thing we were looking for was a PDF export button. This can be found by navigating to File > Save As > Download as PDF.
It takes a couple of seconds to generate a PDF for you and a copy for the NSA, but afterwards you’ll be given a direct download link.
After saving the document and opening it, I can only say that Microsoft produced a perfectly readable PDF, fully compatible with Evince.
In the end, Microsoft is still Microsoft, so don’t expect to ever see a Download as ODF option. If you want to edit complex OOXML documents, you’ll be locked in to their key logging web application.
ideologial GNU/Linux users who don’t care as much about privacy and security.
Ultimately, it gets the job done and it works on a 100% Free Software computer, so it’s already a huge improvement compared to having to install a Windows VM and running MS Office within it. That would completely destroy the integrity and the security of your home network, require a high-end computer, and easily costs you over €150. Not to mention that you’d have to accept the Windows and Office license agreements which add up to about 80 pages describing what you’re not allowed to do with your own computer.
Now you just visit a web site with Firefox or Chromium.