OpenOffice vs. Office 2011: Rooting for the Underdog

Happy birthday, OpenOffice. Believe it or not, it’s been ten years since the mighty “other” productivity suite—the open-source uncle of Microsoft’s ‘Monopoloffice’—began the slow fight for recognition. How far we’ve come.

Of course, it’s been slightly less than ten years for us Mac folks, but in any case the milestone merits a re-evaluation of this streamlined suite of apps, especially in light of Microsoft’s recent release of Office 2011 for OS X.

At the end of the day, the question has always been whether or not OpenOffice is able to sufficiently replace Microsoft Office. Has it reached this stage today? Read on to find out…

The OpenOffice Advantage

Before delving into the nitty-gritty of the matter, let’s take a broader look at the situation and discuss some of OpenOffice’s overall characteristics.

A significant leg up that it has over Office 2011 is size. OpenOffice is a lean 430MB when installed, versus Office 2011’s significantly beefier 1.3GB footprint. This not only makes it more portable, but also means that it’s quicker to install — plus, you can download it right from wherever you are.

The entirety of OpenOffice also launches from a single icon, bringing up a “portal” screen from which you can open whatever kind of document you need. This can save some space in your dock if you frequently use a word processor, spreadsheets, and presentations but don’t want an icon for each taking up space.

Splash Screen

Splash Screen

The most obvious advantage is, of course, price. OpenOffice is completely and utterly free. You are encouraged to donate to the project to help fund ongoing development, but it’s neither required nor pressured. Furthermore, the open-source nature of the project also means that there’s only one version of the suite, unlike Microsoft Office’s ‘Home & Student’ and ‘Home & Business’ editions.

Performance Anxiety

When it comes to actually working with OpenOffice, the advantages of its lean nature seem oddly understated. You’d expect that at a fraction of the size of its Office 2011 counterpart, it would load significantly faster…but that simply isn’t the case. While the main window typically opens in under 2 seconds and each of the component applications jumps to attention nearly instantly, the same is true of Office 2011. So much for that.

The one area that OpenOffice is noticeably quicker in is font performance. Office 2011 will periodically slow down to “optimize font performance”, an operation that reduces the program in question to a crawl. It doesn’t take long to perform, but OpenOffice seems able to handle font performance just fine without optimization. Furthermore, even when you have many fonts installed, OpenOffice’s font menus tend to be distinctly more responsive. Office 2011’s feel sluggish, even after the “optimization” routine.

Now let’s have a look at each of the major components of OpenOffice in more detail and determine how they stack up against Microsoft’s.

Documents & Interface Issues

OpenOffice’s document editing application is called Writer. In the bluntest of terms, Writer is a minimalistic application that is truly focused on word processing. This stands in contrast to Office 2011—or especially Apple’s own Pages—both of which combine word processing capabilities with some advanced layout design functionality. For those who are only interested in producing text and have only a passing need to style it up, this will be a positive distinction.

When you open Writer, you’ll notice a clean and familiar interface that clearly adheres to the ‘classic’ interface layout established years ago for word processing applications. Whereas Word from Office 2011 seeks to offer some eye-candy in its design and interface, OpenOffice is evidently the old grandfather recommending salt crackers and prunes because they’re healthier.

Open Office Writer Header

Open Office Writer Header

Microsoft Word Header

Microsoft Word Header

Nevertheless, OpenOffice’s interface is undeniably functional and accessible… but it is also undeniably dated. There is a sense that in striving to maintain this barebones, ubiquitous look, the OpenOffice team has forgotten to take into account the positive developments in user interface design research that have cropped up over the past several years.

The elephant in the room here is Microsoft’s ribbon interface, so let’s bring him into the conversation. In 2007, Microsoft revolutionized the design of their Office suite for Windows by introducing their “Fluent User Interface”, which consistent primarily of a fundamental re-thinking of how features and tools were laid out in their applications.

The so-called “ribbon” interface was a transformative element that purported to provide quicker, more intuitive access to the available features of the Office suite. Unfortunately, for a customer base that grew up learning that the original interface was intuitive, the switch was received with a great deal of controversy.

Fast-forward a few years and the ribbon has made its way to all Microsoft Office products on Windows and Mac. The concept has been refined based on user feedback, but it remains largely the same. It is a different paradigm and whether or not you like it will most likely have a profound effect on how you view OpenOffice versus Office 2011 aesthetically.

Functionally speaking, the lack of aesthetic flair in OpenOffice is a non-issue. Unless you need a pretty interface to work, you’ll be able to put words on a page without a problem in either Writer or Word. Writer will also allow you to import PDF files, which Word does not (it can only export them).

Useful for wordsmiths with ADD, Writer features a full-screen view to help minimize distractions, but unfortunately it’s quite crude — removing access to toolbars while maintaining the garish margin markers. Word’s full-screen implementation seems considerably better thought out, with calm black surrounding your page while everything else disappears. Even so, they’ve kept the menu accessible: mousing to the top of your screen prompts it to slide out of hiding, creeping back out of your way when you’re done with it.

Open Office Writer Full-Screen

Open Office Writer Full-Screen

Microsoft Word Full Screen

Microsoft Word Full Screen


The second pillar of office suites is their handling of spreadsheets. OpenOffice’s answer to Microsoft’s Excel is a powerful tool called Calc. The new version of Calc not only adds extra security enhancements for files, but also bumps the number of supported rows in a spreadsheet to just over one million, making it almost infinitely robust (though performance when loading large spreadsheet files is significantly less efficient than in Excel).

OpenOffice Calc Header

OpenOffice Calc Header

Microsoft Excel Header

Microsoft Excel Header

Calc is probably OpenOffice’s strongest contender, if only because it is the one component where design tends to matter the least. In terms of being easy for someone new to pick up and use, Calc falls way short of Excel and its easy-to-manage ribbon and extensive wizards to help with more complex functions, but power users and spreadsheet gurus will find that it is more than capable of handling the vast majority of things they throw at it. Calc also supports more languages for macro functions, though their use is somewhat less accessible.

Presentations and Templates

OpenOffice’s Impress is a smart presentation program. It suffers from an inexcusable lack of attractive built-in templates and design options when compared to PowerPoint 2011, but its multiple-monitor support and efficient handling of effects and transitions makes this forgivable.

OpenOffice Impress

OpenOffice Impress

Microsoft Powerpoint

Microsoft Powerpoint

It’s a difficult component to judge because the entire paradigm of slideshow presentations seems to be transforming slowly into something more video-like and less linear and stale. PowerPoint 2011 seems particularly in tune with this shift, offering the ability to export to a movie file so you can transfer your multi-media presentations around without worrying about it opening strangely on another computer.

That being said, if you’re just after raw slideshow-based presenting, then Impress will do the job fine.


With the main elements out of the way, it’s worth mentioning the extra components of OpenOffice since they can be extremely valuable additions depending on your workflow. Draw is OpenOffice’s answer to Microsoft’s Visio — fans of Microsoft Office will be shrugging here because Visio has yet to make it to the Mac, even with this latest 2011 version. Draw doesn’t just win by default though, since it actually does provide a powerful set of tools for creating and manipulating diagrams and graphics in 2D and 3D.

Base corresponds to Microsoft Access, once again absent from Office 2011. OpenOffice Base is flexible enough to handle both personal databases and large, enterprise-scale affairs with its support for MySQL, Adabas D, as well its ability to integrate with existing databases thanks to its support for JDBC/ODBC standard drivers.

Last up is Math, a simple outboard equation editor for setting up complicated mathematical statements that can then be integrated into Writer, Calc, and Impress or exported freely for use in another environment. Office 2011 also has its own dedicated equation editor (called, creatively enough, “Equation Editor”) that gets called up to handle equation entry from within each application, or can be run separately from a subfolder of the main Microsoft Office 2011 directory in your Applications folder.

If you’re using the business edition of Office 2011, you’ll also have access to Outlook, Microsoft’s mighty email/calendar/contacts super-application that has been the staple of its Windows counterpart for years.

Replacing the intermediate Entourage from previous versions, Outlook is now an extremely powerful and well designed solution for handling day-to-day tasks, scheduling, and mail. OpenOffice has evidently not seen this aspect as one worth pursuing, and it’s not terribly surprising considering the competition in the field even from Apple’s own dedicated iCal, Mail, and Address Book apps.


The spotlight is on you now. Do you hate the ribbon? Do you value beautiful aesthetic interface design and loads of shiny templates to work from? If so, then OpenOffice will still fail to impress you, despite its continuing advancements “under the hood”.

If you’re a business user looking for a powerful alternative to Microsoft’s suite that offers the same fundamental functionality without any need to worry about licensing costs, then OpenOffice will seem like a godsend. Similarly, if you’re a casual user who only occasionally needs to use an office suite and therefore can’t justify ponying up the cash for the premium Office 2011, then OpenOffice will serve as a suitable alternative.

My own feeling is that OpenOffice remains the underdog for now. It’s ironic because if I had been asked the question just a short while ago when Office 2008 was still the best Microsoft could do, I might have said otherwise. Office 2008 was a sluggish, awkward, and foreign-feeling set of applications that failed to deliver the kind of performance and working environment that I had hoped.

Since 2011 though, I must give credit where it’s due and admit that Microsoft have stepped up their game to produce a truly stunning set of programs that run well, feel like they’re native to the Mac, and go above and beyond the call of duty making them a pleasure to work with.

I’m rooting for OpenOffice though. I think the project is a valuable and admirable one, and I suspect that as more and more people adopt the software, contribute donations toward development, and lend a hand in making it better, OpenOffice will close the gap between it and its competitors swiftly and decisively. After all, the open-source model offers it an agility that is hard to come by in commercial development cycles.

So for what it is — a compact and barebones but powerful office suite at an unbeatable price — OpenOffice is a winner. But can it outright replace Office 2011? It seems unlikely.

Leave us your thoughts about OpenOffice and Office 2011 in the comments! Which do you prefer?