microsoft word could be better

It is the rare individual that isn’t locked in some sort of love-hate relationship with Microsoft Word. Its ubiquity and feature set have made it the default for document creation just about everywhere, so chances are you’ve used it extensively and feel pretty comfortable navigating it. Many people will have Word, and their documents will play nicely with your documents. That’s the love-ish part.

The hate comes in at any number of places. Maybe you hate the price you’ll pay to get Microsoft Office at home. Maybe you hate the fact that they switched to that ribbon interface a couple iterations ago. Maybe you’ve never gotten over the trauma that was Clippy.

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Maybe you are browsing Microsoft alternatives because you’re philosophically committed to using open source software. Maybe you just really hate Microsoft as a company. No matter the reason, really. If you’re just looking around, kicking some tires to see what might work for you, here are some alternatives.

A note on my completely not-at-all rigorous testing mechanism: for each Word alternative, I stuffed a heavily formatted legal document — headers, bullet points, footnotes, signature blocks, you name it — into the program to see if it would play nice with an existing Word document. After that, I moved text around, redlined, and commented all over the thing. I also moved documents back and forth between programs with and without edits to see how things behave in Word after they’re created or altered in another program. After that, I did a feature check for things small-firm lawyers often need to handle solo, like mail merges and envelopes.

There are a couple notable programs missing from this list. First, the open source program AbiWord is still beloved, it appears, but hasn’t been updated in forever. It might be a useful choice for an antiquated system that needs something super-lightweight to work, but for a typical office computer, it will just be too clunky to even get installed. (I couldn’t install it on my Mac at all, as it hasn’t been updated since Macs were PowerPCs.) You also won’t see WordPerfect, because that’s a program you need to purchase and because honestly, if you are still wedded to WordPerfect after all these years, you probably can’t be dissuaded at this point.

All that said, let’s do this.

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OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice

A few years ago, there was a big nerd fight over open source office software. OpenOffice, long the reigning king of feature-rich Word imitators, was acquired when Oracle bought Sun, and Oracle basically let it die. Out of the ashes of OpenOffice.org arose LibreOffice. For quite some time, LibreOffice advanced while OpenOffice.org lay fallow, but OpenOffice.org recently stepped up its efforts and is back in the game.

Honestly, unless you really want to get your geek on, LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org are substantially the same for most business purposes. If you’d like to see a detailed head-to-head matchup review, Infoworld has a good piece detailing how OpenOffice.org came back from the dead.

Because both of these programs are so good at imitating Word, there’s very little to say about them.

  • Headers? Check.
  • Outlines? Check.
  • Footnotes? Check.
  • Envelopes from within the document? Check.
  • Mail merge wizard? Check and check and check.

Sam Glover has written before that he was able to run a litigation practice using OpenOffice for years, and he’s absolutely right in saying that. There’s just no reason you can’t completely replace Word with either of these programs. The people on the receiving end of your documents will never know that you’ve created them in anything other than Word.

Special bonus: both of these programs have fully portable apps, so you can use them on any machine you happen to use.

Verdict: Both programs are more lightweight than Microsoft’s office suite. Both programs are free. Both programs rival Microsoft’s feature set. You won’t regret switching over one bit. Heck, you might not even notice you did.

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Pages

Apple’s Pages is the quintessential Mac program. It’s gorgeous, clean, and without one million ribbons or popovers to complicate your writing experience.

It plays incredibly nice with the rest of the Mac ecosystem. Start working on a document on your Mac, and Pages will automatically store it in iCloud so you can finish working on it on your iPad. The user experience is seamless. But like with many things Mac, it’s the pricing and access that gets a little complicated.

Pages, along with the rest of Apple’s iWork suite, is free for Macs, but only if you purchased your new Mac after October 1, 2013. Pages is free on iOS devices, but only if you bought your iPad or iPhone after September 1, 2013. I own a Mac that qualifies for the free Pages and an iPad and an iPhone that do not, which substantially lessens that whole easy back-and-forth thing unless I want to pony up $9.99 for Pages for iOS. In a similar vein, you can use Pages via the web on a Windows (or a Mac) machine, and it looks great, but there’s no such thing as Pages for Windows.

Functionally, Pages handled the Word-formatted DOCX document I threw at it quite nicely. The only thing that went weird during a lengthy cut and paste was the appearance of some spacing issues, but nothing that wasn’t fixable within a minute. It kept my headers and footers, and Pages allowed me to edit both without any trouble once they were open. You can redline and comment on Pages just like you can in Microsoft Word, and if you are collaborating with a Microsoft user and sending documents back and forth, the changes can be accepted and rejected easily even when switching from format to format.

By default, Pages saves documents in the PAGES format, which is a thing that no one but Apple uses, of course. However, you can export to PDF, Word, plain text, or EPUB, so you won’t lose any functionality there.

However, speaking of losing functionality, there has been much sadness across the land as Apple has worked to make Pages on Mac and Pages on iOS essentially interchangeable, because doing so has resulted in the loss of some key things like mail merge, which may be a make-or-break for some lawyers. Pages also handles envelopes clunkily. You can’t create an envelope from the letter you’re working on, as you can in Word. Instead, you have to hop out of the document entirely and start a new document with the envelope template. Again, this may not be a huge thing for lots of people, but if you’re a solo practitioner that deals with a lot of correspondence, the clunkiness of doing each letter separately and hopping in and out of documents to do envelopes could get old pretty quickly.

Verdict: Pages is a great choice if you’re already heavily invested in the Apple universe and value a clean interface for writing, but the lack of some mission critical correspondence functions might get in the way for some.

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Microsoft Office for Web

At first blush, this seems like an odd choice for inclusion in a quest for Microsoft alternatives, but bear with me. I’m assuming that some of you may only dislike Microsoft Word because of the cost of entry, but wouldn’t mind actually being able to use Microsoft Word otherwise. Microsoft Office Online lets you do that. Sort of.

Word Online (and the rest of the Microsoft Office Online suite) is free on the web, but comes with quite a few key Word pieces stripped out of it.

The good news: Word Online looks and feels like Microsoft Word offline, complete with the ribbon, and with a small selection of pre-set templates. It will default to saving in a DOC format so you won’t have to deal with any exporting shenanigans. You can share the document with others via email and allow them to edit. You can export it as a PDF if you want to create a non-editable document.

The semi-bad news: Word Online is wedded to Microsoft OneDrive, which means that you have to set up a OneDrive account in order to use the program. Even after you do that, Word Online won’t open up a document directly from your computer. You’ll need to upload it into OneDrive first, and then open it from there. It doesn’t seem like something that would be an enormous hassle, but it ends up being one more step in a process and ties you to (likely yet another) online storage regime.

The really bad news: Word Online doesn’t have redlining (though it does have comments), or mail merger, or envelopes. Basically, it’s Word without most of the things you want in Word.

Verdict: if you absolutely only feel comfortable working in Word, this is a way you can do so for free, particularly if you only occasionally need to edit documents on a home computer that doesn’t have an Office suite. However, if you’re at all savvy with other programs, this option will just end up feeling low in features and high on complications.

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Google Docs

Even if you have tried to stand firm in your refusal to deal with anything that isn’t Microsoft Word, even if you have an unvarnished hate for Google, it’s likely you haven’t been able to avoid using Google Docs.

Even though I generally love all things Google, I’ll admit to having used Google Docs sparingly in the past. I’ve always found the online editing format to be more limited than I’d like, so my usage was generally limited to sharing documents with people that weren’t using Word, as it’s easy to save documents in Word format. However, Google’s done an excellent job rapidly expanding Google Docs to include greater and greater functionality for things like headers, footers, footnotes, bulleted lists, and the like. In my test document, I moved my footnotes around, I added bullet points, I changed headers, and everything stayed nice and clean when I bounced back and forth between Docs and Word.

Moving forward, it’s likely that Google Docs will see significant increases in usefulness for lawyers and anyone else who needs Docs to behave more like an offline suite of products. Google opened up its API to developers to allow them to create add-ons for Google Docs the same way they previously had for Chrome. The add-on program is in its infancy, so some of the nifty new features aren’t quite ready for prime-time, but they show promise.

Google Docs has always fallen critically short in the redlining department. Sure, Docs is has always been great with revision control, allowing you to compare the current document to past versions and, if you’re collaborating, see who shared what, but being able to see inline changes was impossible. Enter the Track Changes add-on, which allows you to see additions and deletions in a sidebar. It still isn’t quite Word-quality, as you don’t get the strikethrough/underline visual combo that we lawyers crave, but really, it’s just a matter of time.

Verdict: Don’t try to resist the Google hegemony. Sooner or later, you’ll use Google Docs. It’s just a matter of time.

Updates

  • 2014-06-10. Originally published.
  • 2015-06-18. Changed featured image. Revised copy and republished.

4 Comments

  1. If you want MS Office at home, Office 365 Personal is $6.99/month. Doesn’t seem very expensive to me. The ribbon interface contains buttons for which there were no buttons previously; it instantly provides the tools you need based upon what you’re doing (contextual tabs); and it is overall vastly better than the static, ancient interface previously employed. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s bad. Mr. Clippy was last used in Office 2003 which was obviously 11 years ago. In software years, that was 77 years ago. I’m not sure how that is remotely relevant today and if someone is still traumatized by an animated paper clip 11 years later, then professional help is clearly required. If you spend 75% of your time fixing auto formatting, then I can solve that for you by showing you how to turn it off permanently. Just a few check boxes.

    I hate to be Captain Obvious, but the best solution for not knowing how to control Word is to learn how to control Word. There appears to be some expectation that by simply playing around with a complex software program that one should be able to master it. It just doesn’t work like that. However, that doesn’t mean that one can’t master any program including Word. I can easily show you in 5 minutes or less how to fix or address or avoid any issue you’ve ever found frustrating about Word. For free, via web meeting. Just shoot me an email (bhenley@affinityconsulting.com). Send me ANY document you want representing ANY issue and I can solve it for you in
    seconds. I read article after article written by people who bash Word and claim it to be indecipherable when they’ve never actually read a single manual or taken a single class. If you DID take a class, then it was obviously woefully inadequate. I’m not
    saying Word is perfect – it isn’t. However, it’s controllable and once mastered, you’ll spend no time trying to fix a formatting glitch because they are 100% avoidable in the first place. Default settings need to be adjusted; default formatting needs to be adjusted; and styles and section formatting must be understood. After that, every document is a piece of cake – no matter how complex the formatting is. :)

  2. Philnick says:

    Your justifications for leaving WordPerfect out of this line-up are (1) it’s not free and (2) WP users aren’t going to switch.

    (1) The Apple programs you talked about aren’t free except for buyers of relatively new machines, so there goes justification number one.

    (2) Since you’re talking about choices frustrated Word users might flee *to*, the fact that WP users don’t want to switch to Word is irrelevant. There goes justification number two.

    WP Office for Windows is far cheaper than MS Office, can read and write both the old and new MS Office file formats (i.e. those with or without an “x” at the end) and has for the last three versions (X5, X6 & X7), and being a Windows program it does not feel very different. It just does everything MS Office does and more (not less, as with many of the ones you list) – more consistently, more predictably, and will do what you want, the way you want to.

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