Shell's TechBlabber

…ShelLuser blogs about stuff ;)

Why I bought MS Office despite Libre & Open–Office being available?

office-365-icon-0When my PC crashed last year I had many administrative tasks on my todo list which were quite important to me. Fortunately I always kept the risk of my PC crashing in mind and maintained a KDE desktop on my FreeBSD server which included Libre Office and that seriously saved my hide. Well, apart from the ability to print, for some reason CUPS didn’t properly support my Samsung multi-function network printer even though it claimed to do so (the driver was even named after it).

Fast forward to the here and now; I got a new PC running Windows 10 and have less administrative tasks to perform. So surely Libre Office would be the perfect candidate, also considering that I’m quite familiar with it, right? Well… no. I ended up getting myself an Office 2016 pro license which only cost me around E 50,-. None of that 365 subscription nonsense: just a license and the desktop applications. And that made some of my friends wonder; why would you want to pay for an Office version when there’s free stuff available? And how did you get Office so cheap, doesn’t that normally cost hundreds of dollars?

Sounds like a good topic for my blog 😉

#1 OneNote

5481.OneNote-logo_625AFCE4OneNote is a digital notebook in which you can store just about anything you’d like. From text snippets to copies of webpages (where it can add a reference to the original location(s)), from sound recordings to simple quick drawings.

And speaking of pictures and drawings: OneNote also supports OCR, Optical Character Recognition, which means that it can often easily convert text on a picture into regular text (‘ASCII’) which you can then use in your document(s). 2016 even took this to the next level because it can also recognize equations which you can draw and then convert those into real formulas. It can even do some basic calculations this way (though that feature is better supported in Office 2019).

Fully integrated

I’m well aware that you also have free notebook-like programs available but I’m usually not too thrilled about those. More than often do they require you to store your data on their cloud services for “better accessibility”, usually referring to access from other platforms such as your mobile phone. But what if you don’t want or need any of that?

And then there’s the integration part. Because OneNote is part of Office and Office is heavily tied into Windows, so the whole thing forms a very cohesive unit. Using “office technology” (I’ll get into that later) I can easily access OneNote from other programs if I want to. And vice versa: I also have access to other Office parts from within OneNote. If I wanted to I can use Word (or Excel) to edit or maintain specific parts of my work within OneNote.

Also: because of this integration it makes it really easy to quickly copy something and sent it over to OneNote for storage or later examination.

It’s easy to forget…

Which brings me to the main reason I’ve become such a die-hard OneNote user over the years: it’s so easy to forget something. Take this blog: tomorrow you may still remember its name or this article. But next month? Which is why I often take notes. And to ensure that I don’t lose track of any of those I’m using OneNote to store all that information.

#2 The (ribbon) interface

One of my main gripes with several open source programs is that it’s often made by developers, for developers. This isn’t always the case of course, but several programs have a serious learning curve which by itself doesn’t have to be too much of an issue, but it can hinder productivity. After all: not everyone is very tech savy, and this is especially true when we’re looking at Office users.

A writer doesn’t necessarily have to know much about computers for example.

word_2016

Of course the ribbon interface is a big part of the way how you work with Office, but they’ve done so much more to make working with your data as easy as possible. A good example can be seen above: the moment I highlight a section then Word shows me a menu which contains the most commonly used markup options. I can change the font, its size, its (background) colour but I also have direct access to less obvious but still common settings such as underline and lists.

This is the kind of user friendliness which you won’t find in Libre Office. Don’t get me wrong here: of course this is merely a small detail. I’m definitely not trying to make Libre Office look bad, it’s a very impressive project and quite capable too! But it is still a fact that simple features such as the one shown above can help you do your work a lot quicker.

The Ribbon

It also doesn’t help that after the Ribbon interface became much more established within Windows (I’m now talking around Office 2010 – 2013) Libre Office insisted to stick with the icon toolbars. Like it or not but once you grasped the idea behind the ribbon then you’ll soon realize how easier and more accessible it is in comparison to a toolbar.

See, the main reason why many people initially preferred the toolbar over the ribbon was because they were already quite familiar with it; the ribbon was something ‘new’ and thus “difficult”. However, for a casual Office user an icon toolbar was usually a nightmare. After all: there are normally dozens of different options listed, so which one do you need? It wasn’t exactly uncommon to have two totally different options sitting right next to each other, where’s the logic in that?

This is where the ribbon can shine: by grouping several options together and adding as many as you need it is generally speaking much easier to find what you’re looking for. Need to make a list of contents? You want references (“Verwijzingen” in Dutch). Want to add something to your document? Easy: Insert (or “Invoegen” in Dutch). Once you have the right ribbon (or: menu section) then you can be pretty much sure that the option you need is shown on that section. Best of all: most options have a clear description as well, so no more need to hover over many icons to see what it does.

And the reason I said that the initial stance from the Libre Office project didn’t help is because the current version actually provides limited support for a ribbon-like interface. I call that ironic. But it also proves my previous point a bit: made by developers, for developers. Who didn’t stop to think that the ribbon interface was much more than just a fancy change; it actually helped people to become more productive!

#3 System integration

I’m sure Microsoft could be ‘cheating’ a bit here but even so… Every self-respecting Office environment provides support for automative tasks these days. You know: macro’s and stuff. Well, Microsoft Office provides “a little bit” more than just macros: it adds a full blown programming environment into the mixture called Visual Basis for Applications, or VBA in short. And please don’t make the classic mistake of waiving BASIC away as if it were an old obsolete language, you’d be surprised to learn how much alive the language is today and the kind of amazing stuff you can do with it!

I’m sure some of you might now be (virtually) yelling: “But LibreOffice provides the same! It even has macros powered by LibreOffice basic”, and you’d be right. LibreOffice also provides support for BeanShell; a macro-like language powered by my personal favourite programming language of Java. But there’s one thing it doesn’t have:

vba_verwijzigingen

Support for system references. You see: Windows is much more than “just” an operating system with a GUI draped on top of it. Underneath the GUI is a very structured system hierarchy which allows you to access just about everything registered within the OS. In my example above you can see that I can easily access VideoLAN (“VLC”) services from within VBA running on Word. In other words: if I want to I can setup something to control VLC from within Word “just like that”. In case you’re not familiar with VLC: It’s an open source media player which supports just about every known video and audio format there is. Here is the link to their website.

VBA: Supporting features which aren’t supported

I’m positive that you can hardly imagine how deep this rabbit hole goes, so I’d like to share a real world example of this. I’ve used Office 2010 very extensively, also for my own commercial purposes. To that end I wanted to have an automated way to create documents (like invoices and such), and one detail of this was to add a specific document reference which would allow me to find my documents at a later time.

I wrote a VBA powered macro for that and all was good. But then I ran into a new problem: several of my customers preferred digital invoices (by e-mail), which wasn’t a problem by itself. However, I also wanted an easy way to add my reference to my e-mails. To that end I had to find a way to copy my generated reference to the system clipboard. But unfortunately that option wasn’t supported by VBA out of the box, now what?

Although VBA didn’t support this option, Windows itself did. Well, that is to say: there’s a library which Windows provides to get this functionality (stdole2.tlb, or in other words: User32). SO… what I did was add a reference to this library which provided me with control over the clipboard.

That is the kind of control which other environments such as LibreOffice lack. Their macro runtime only provide access to the Office application (or the whole office environment) itself, but anything beyond that is not supported. This is also why I mentioned Microsoft ‘cheating’ a little bit here.

#4 A Pro version?

create-logos-office

When I came up with the idea to get myself an Office license I had the above combination in mind: Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote.

Instead I got all of the above together with:

  • Access; Microsoft’s database application.
  • Publisher; a desktop publishing application. This allows you to fully design and customize the layout of one or more pages. If you want to make a brochure then Publisher can help.
  • Outlook; Microsoft’s mail client and personal information manager. Many people consider Outlook to be just a mail client but that couldn’t be further from the truth because it can also help you schedule meetings, todos, remind you about events and even use your contact list to keep participants informed about possible changes.
  • Skype. An easy way to use VOIP (“Voice over IP”), which I personally don’t use so I won’t go into too much detail here.

In other words: I got a license for Microsoft Office 2016 Pro edition.

Something I’m not actively using though. Even though I really wanted to use and like Outlook (it’s actually one of my favourite mail clients) I simply can’t because it is in my opinion completely unusable unless you use the default layout where you have everything stacked in columns (so, from left to right, you have your folder overview, message header overview and next to that you have your message preview). But I prefer to have my message headers on top, and the message preview below that. And if you set that up with Outlook 2016 then those two sections (which look very much alike) will only be separated by 1 small greyish line, which makes the layout completely unworkable for me.

Hey: I never claimed that Microsoft Office was picture perfect ;)  It definitely has its flaws as well.

#5 The price

I picked up my license for approximately E 80,- give or take, which I think is a very fair price. And as mentioned earlier: I didn’t got a subscription or anything, no, I have the desktop applications installed and I’m in no way depending on my Internet connection.

So how did that work?

I got my license from the Varsio website, and here’s how: they don’t actually sell you the software, but the license. Once you paid them then you get the license sent by e-mail and are then directed to Microsoft’s Office website which allows you to download the software provided that you have a valid license. Which you got thanks to this website.

The license key is immediately validated, and assigned to your Microsoft account and from that moment on you have access to the desktop applications. Download, install, and you have full access to Office.

Be alert for good deals!

If you visit the website then keep your eye open for deals. Sometimes they sell their software licenses for much lower prices than normal. For example, Office 2016 Pro is currently sold for E 79,- which I got a bit cheaper.

Prices can vary and they sometimes also have “day deals” where a specific product gets a good discount for the duration of that day. So your mileage may vary.

Nothing bad about LibreOffice!

Don’t pick up my post in the wrong way please, I am definitely not trying to make it look as if Libre Office is in some way inferior or worse than Microsoft Office, nor am I claiming that Microsoft Office is in any way better than Libre Office.

At best I told you that if given the choice then I prefer Microsoft Office over Libre Office, and for some specific reasons.

But I’d like to add one more to that: support. Right now I have an Office suite of which I know that it will be supported until 2020 at least and at most 2025. Meaning that I don’t have to worry about options getting changed, the interface getting redesigned or whatever weird ideas the developers can throw at you. I can use this version which I’m accustomed to for several more years to come without having to worry about unfixed bugs.

Basically you get what you pay for, and that’s a guarantee which open source projects usually cannot give. Because if a developer feels like making a change then that’s usually the way it’ll go; the end users will simply have to adapt. In another article I illustrated this when NetBeans (= Java IDE) suddenly dropped support for Java Enterprise, ‘because’.

Which is perfectly fine with me, but when it comes to software which I’m using for productive tasks then I want something to rely on, something that can give me guarantees that such changes won’t happen for the next coming years.

And there you have it!

Thanks for reading.

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March 4, 2019 - Posted by | Microsoft Office, TechBlabber | , , , , ,

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