April 19th, 2007 • 4:44 pm
Dear me… I have just spent the best part of my morning communicating with a government employee using WordPerfect in Windows. The problem is, in a nutshell, that I have to do translations for a variety of sources within the government, and some government services still use WordPerfect for one reason or another, so the files that I have to translate are sometimes sent to me in WordPerfect format.
But of course there is no such thing as WordPerfect for Mac OS X, and Microsoft Word for Mac OS X completely refuses to have anything to do with WordPerfect files. Fortunately, there are a couple of options to convert WordPerfect files to a more Mac-friendly format.
Historically, the preferred option was MacLinkPlus Deluxe. But the product has been completely neglected by DataViz for several years now, and its filters don’t really do a very good job. (I haven’t checked the latest MacLinkPlus Deluxe upgrade that has just been announced by DataViz. I am not interested in paying $50 just for the privilege of having a look at it and seeing if it’s any less pathetic than the previous upgrade, but apparently that’s what they expect you to do.)
More recently, it has become possible to view WordPerfect files in Mac OS X with NeoOffice. In my experience, NeoOffice does a significantly better job of opening WordPerfect documents, and then you can save them in a variety of formats, including RTF and several flavours of the Microsoft Word file format. The end result is not always perfect (there can be a number of formatting issues) and NeoOffice’s interface is pretty clunky, but on the whole it’s a better option than MacLinkPlus Deluxe, and it’s free.
So typically when I get a WordPerfect document, I open it with NeoOffice, then save it as an RTF file, and then open it in Word. (Pages doesn’t do a very good job of opening such RTF files. For example, HyperText links usually completely disappear. Not really an acceptable behaviour these days.)
I then work on my translation in Word. And when it comes time to send the translation back, I have two options: Either I send an RTF file, or I use MacLinkPlus Deluxe to convert the file back to a WordPerfect file format. (Unfortunately, NeoOffice only opens WordPerfect files. It can’t save in WordPerfect format.)
And that’s when the problems start… Depending on who receives the document back from me and on exactly which file format I use, there appears to be a range of problems, from mangled accented characters to spurious codes and other unwanted side products.
So the other day I decided to try and investigate the problem a bit further. As a rule, I don’t expect Windows users to be able to do much troubleshooting and testing themselves. They are usually so confused about what means what and what does what in Windows, because the Windows OS and Windows applications are so badly designed in the first place, that I spend far too much time trying to agree on the terminology used to describe the problems in the first place, and then trying to explain to them exactly what I would like them to try and do.
Since I have Windows XP in Parallels on my Mac Pro, I went to the Corel web site and downloaded the 30-day trial version of WordPerfect X3. It’s a huge download (240 MB) and it requires registration, but I was able to install it in my Windows XP environment without much difficulty.
My first shock was to see how similar it is to Word for Windows. It is really hard to understand the business logic of trying to compete with Microsoft Word by selling what is effectively a Word clone. I know that there are still some people who swear by the application, but it seems to me that these are mostly people who have just developed some very specific (and not very up-to-date) work habits and are not particularly interested in changing them.
In any case, I then proceeded to try and reproduce some of the problems that my correspondents were having with my files. Initially things seemed to be working fine and I couldn’t really understand what the problems could be. After all, WordPerfect is theoretically able to open not just WordPerfect files, but also RTF files and even Word files, and also to save in those formats.
But the person with whom I was corresponding kept telling me that he was seeing “codes” that I couldn’t see and getting cases where his machine would just lock up after attempting to open one of my files.
Now, to a degree I think this person was a bit confused about what was what, especially since the files I was sending them were in French and therefore had specific typographic requirements that his English documents did not (non-breaking space, French quotation marks, etc.). I also was able to open an RTF file that I had sent him without any difficulty in WordPerfect X3 under Windows XP in Parallels when the same file was locking up his WordPerfect 9 application under Windows 2000.
I initially thought that his e-mail system was mangling the files, or that it was because he was using an older system and an older version of WordPerfect.
But then I had to do a translation for someone else for which the original was in WordPerfect format. It was a slightly more complex document (with some bullet lists and paragraph style options—nothing particularly outrageous, though). I was able to use my usual procedure (use NeoOffice to convert to RTF, then open RTF file in Word), but when I was done, out of curiosity, I tried to open my translation in RTF format with WordPerfect X3.
The file opened just fine, but when I started proof-reading, I first saw that several paragraph formatting options were quite mangled. Now, of course the original RTF file that I had worked with was the result of a conversion (from WordPerfect) and the original WordPerfect file was probably badly formatted to begin with, with manual formatting all over the place and no attempt to use proper paragraph or character styles. So it was not too surprising to see that WordPerfect X3 didn’t do such a good job of converting the RTF back to its own format.
What was more shocking, however, was to see that WordPerfect X3 had actually also managed to screw up accented characters in a number of places within the documents. Fortunately, not all accented chars were affected. Otherwise, it would have been a nightmare. But here and there in the document, for no apparent reason, a simple accented e (“é”) had become “Zé.” Not all the accented é chars were affected—only some of them, here and there, with no apparent reason.
So I opened my RTF file with Word XP in Windows XP instead. In Word XP, it looked fine. I then saved the file as another RTF file from within Word XP, and reopened it in WordPerfect X3. This time the accented characters were fine.
Then, out of curiosity, I opened my RTF file with NeoOffice in Mac OS X, and saved it as another RTF file with a new name from within NeoOffice. Then I tried to open that RTF file with WordPerfect X3 in Windows XP.
And here’s what I got:
Worse still: When I clicked on “OK,” the whole WordPerfect application locked up altogether. Fortunately, it didn’t bring my entire Windows XP environment down and I was able to just close the application and reopen it.
But still! I know that RTF is a bit of a dicey file format that comes with a long history of problems… But it certainly shouldn’t be enough to cause an entire application to lock up and crash!
Further experimentation enabled me to establish that WordPerfect’s support for Word and RTF file formats is effectively very unreliable and unpredictable. I cannot for the life of me imagine how an application that is already in a minority situation can expect to survive against the Microsoft Word juggernaut without a minimum level of file format compatibility. I realize that the problems here are probably compounded by the fact that I authored the RTF file in a Mac environment and that this is not an extremely common situation.
But my conversations with WordPerfect users seem to confirm that they are unfortunately quite familiar with such problems—even though they obviously don’t really have any solutions.
So right now they are going to have to use work-arounds such as opening my RTF files in Windows with WordPad, saving them under a new name in RTF file format in WordPad, and then opening the result in WordPerfect while crossing their fingers. But even that probably won’t always guarantee a very usable result, at least according to what they are telling me.
I can understanding the difficulty of preserving all paragraph formatting options when converting from Word to WordPerfect, especially when so many people use manual formatting options without consistency and without relying on the smart and solid formatting options offered by style sheets. But failing to properly and reliably decode accented characters or freezing when opening an RTF file that opens just fine in Word or WordPad is simply not acceptable.
And so I now return to my “safe” Mac OS X environment. I still have to use Microsoft Word in it, and I am stilling going to have to deal with WordPerfect files in the foreseeable future. So it is not all rosy. But after catching a glimpse of what it is like to actually try and get work done under Windows with a Windows application such as WordPerfect, I feel that things must be easily ten times worse for Windows users in the real world. These were not even particularly complex word processor files!
It makes you wonder whether the majority of computer users will ever have access to an environment where things work relatively smoothly and reliably in most situations. (And of course things are significantly worse as soon as you stray away from the most basic, plain English, ASCII-text documents, which means that problems are usually compounded for non-English users or English users having to deal with non-English documents.)
It really is a sad, sad situation.