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Bytes and Beyond

Why I prefer SoftMaker Office

Due to company policy, I have recently become a Microsoft Office user at work. At home, I continue to use SoftMaker Office. Switching back and forth has proven to be less of an issue than expected. Quite the opposite: Writing in TextMaker and editing spreadsheets in PlanMaker emphasizes the feeling of being home.

At work, I have to make do with the tools I am issued. At home, I choose my own toolset and that continues to be the software that makes me the most efficient.

An Office Odyssey

I've been using SoftMaker products way before starting to write this blog. Over the course of the past decades, I have probably gone through every Office suite available. After a rough start with WordStar and WordPerfect, I switched to Microsoft Word until one fateful night it ate my diploma thesis. Back then I was not in the habit of making regular backups, hence I had to reconstruct my work from an older printout. That's when I came across Lotus SmartSuite – shortly before it was gobbled up by IBM and left out to die by its new owner.

With a heavy sigh, I moved onward to StarOffice, which later became OpenOffice (and eventually LibreOffice). As I was looking for something less cumbersome than OpenOffice, a colleague pointed me toward SoftMaker Office. It was love at first sight – especially once I realized it was available for multiple operating systems, including smartphones and tablets. I like to keep my options open. At the time, there was no Microsoft Office for Android, and the apps provided by Apple and Google seemed too limiting.

Every couple of years, I took another look at Microsoft Office. It always seemed too bloated for my needs and way too set in its ways – and instead of improving, that trend seemed to be getting worse. When Microsoft introduced ribbons with no option to switch back to menus, I stopped hoping that Microsoft Office would ever meet my needs.

An Office suite is a tool

In my opinion, an Office suite is a tool to get things done – much like an operating system. Neither is an end in itself; they are not meant to draw attention to themselves. Never have I sat down and said "I just want to play around with a spreadsheet for a couple of hours." When I open PlanMaker, I have plans to make.

I'm not a fan of Microsoft's habit of forcing new interfaces onto their users – eliminating the start menu from Windows 8, enforcing ribbons and a single document interface (SDI) in Office 2007. I don't like being bullied into having to change the way I work without getting any benefit out of it.

So when SoftMaker announced their own ribbon interface for SoftMaker Office 2018, I held my breath. Upon reading the announcement more closely, I realized the ribbons would remain optional, not a forced change. Users can even have it both ways: SoftMaker's ribbon includes a "hamburger button" which opens the classic menu structure ("hamburger button" is the name of those three stacked lines). Since I like to minimize switching between keyboard and mouse, I quickly set up a keyboard shortcut to open the menu directly.

Customizability is king

Microsoft Office severely limits users' possibilities to customize its applications – especially in regards to keyboard shortcuts. In Word, you can quickly save a document with a new name using Ctrl+Shift+S. When I realized that this didn't work in Excel, I spent ten minutes of company time looking for a way to set up a custom keyboard shortcut before giving up and asking a search engine for help. Imagine my surprise when Microsoft themselves directed me to use a third-party add-in. This would probably have violated company policy. Ugh. (On the plus side, the web search taught me to adapt – I now use F12 instead.)

To me, the customization possibilities and their accessibility are some of the main advantages of SoftMaker Office. When I realized that PlanMaker and Presentations would close with Ctrl+Q, I was quite surprised to find that TextMaker wouldn't. It only took me a minute to set up the corresponding shortcut in my favorite word processor.

Another gripe with Microsoft Office is its single document interface (SDI), especially when I want to Alt+Tab to other open applications and instead I cycle through my open Word documents. I have read Microsoft's rationale for this – when it comes down to it, the ribbon is nothing more than a tabbed toolbar and developers worried that users would get confused with two sets of tabs. Microsoft's argument would be more convincing if SoftMaker Office had not proved that ribbons can peacefully coexist with a tabbed multi-document interface.

To add insult to injury, the ribbons in Microsoft Office are anything but consistent across applications. I was downright flabberghasted when I realized that a ribbon could even become inconsistent within one application – the default quick reply editor of Outlook hides some editing options provided only in the full editor window. Figuring this out cost me another fifteen minutes of company time.

So when I come back home and I open SoftMaker Office, it is with an unexpected feeling of relief. There's probably a moral buried somewhere in the fact that a relatively small company in Germany is consistently producing a more accessible Office suite than a certain software behemoth located in Redmond, USA. When I take work home, I edit the documents in SoftMaker Office, take them back to work and nobody is any wiser. And when I realize that F12 does something entirely different in PlanMaker than what I've now come to expect, it takes me less than five minutes to change it.

Thank you.

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