Can’t stand Microsoft Word 2004 for Mac OS X? Try WordPerfect in Windows XP for a while…

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft, Technology, Windows
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 “.” 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:

Unknown File Format

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.

12 Responses to “Can’t stand Microsoft Word 2004 for Mac OS X? Try WordPerfect in Windows XP for a while…”

  1. SteveH says:

    Would AbiWord give you a simpler round trip as it can read and write WordPerfect files in theory? I haven’t used it in years and that was way back on BeOS so can’t comment on its abilities.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I don’t know… I guess I am going to have to give it a try! Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. danridley says:

    If you can still get your hands on a trial copy, you’re likely to have better luck with WordPerfect 10 or 11. 12 and 13/X3 introduced more stability issues, but the WPD file format hasn’t changed substantially since v7.

    From versions 6 to 10, WordPerfect was far and away superior to Word on Windows. They’ve lost some of the advantage, and unfortunately it’s not because Word has gotten better.

    There’s one area where Word is now better: international language support was a strong point for WordPerfect for many, many years, but WP never moved to Unicode, so its internationalization looks really hacky by comparison to everything else these days.

    This may be what you’re running into with your RTFs; when I last looked into RTFs and Unicode (mid-2004), OpenOffice was writing them incorrectly. (The RTF spec asked for both ANSI *and* Unicode characters in the file, and OpenOffice was only inserting the Unicode characters. It’s likely that WordPerfect would choke on these files.)

  4. dmglaw says:

    I am sure others use WordPerfect, but typically it seems to be used by Attorneys and some educators. I use MacLink Plus and it works flawlessly. We get estate-planning documents all the time from clients in Word Perfect and have to convert them to Word. MacLink Plus is expensive, but if you use it regularly what is $79 for great, accurate conversions. (Much better than any of the online services and even better than when Word Perfect saves in Word format. The other software may be free, but its not automated. If you only need one file converted every month, I am sure it will be fine, We convert several files a day and sometimes over a hundred. With MacLink Plus you can convert them at once and get back to what your real job is.

  5. silas says:

    2 points to be made – by someone who spent the years from System 7 to OS 10.1 using Windows 95, 98, 2000 and XP, and only came back to the Mac with the advent of Jaguar.

    Wordperfect in its day was far an away the best word processing program available, on any OS. Say the words “reveal codes” in public and you’re bound to be harassed by seom former WP junkie. It was better than MS Word, and cheaper, which is why government agencies used it. Its powerful and exact formatting options made it the best choice for law firms. Corporations went to MS, thanks to expensive lobbying and the necessity of Excel and Powerpoint compatibility, and eventually law firms were forced to change as well, to communicate with their corporate clients.) Anyway, that’s point 1: before you go bad-mouthing WP, realize that it once was the best thing out there. Version 10 was great. The hardest thing about moving from Windows to OS X for me was giving up Wordperfect.

    Point 2: it was hard until I realized that OS X, being a smaller market, has much better competitive choice among word processors. The one that I settled on, that not enough people know about, is Nisus Writer Express. It’s got the best UI of any word processor I’ve ever worked with; it’s half the price of MS Word; it’s compatible with MS Word files, and with many of Word’s more advanced features; and it opens Wordperfect files flawlessly. In addition to being the best word processor I’ve ever used, NWE has enabled me to bring everything I wrote for ten years over to OS X with me, with no fuss.

    Oh, and Nisus has a Pro version coming out in a couple months. If you continue to work with .wpd files, and just because it’s a great program, I suggest you check it out.

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    dmglaw: I don’t really have the same experience with MacLinkPlus Deluxe. I have several significant issues with the software itself (some described in this post) and I also still don’t understand how they could remove some filters/file formats from the software under the pretext that they were “out of date” (see this tech note, in the section about MLPD 12). I mean, isn’t the whole point of an application like MLPD to provide access to file formats that are otherwise no longer accessible? How can some translators ever become “out of date?” Who on earth decides that?

    More important, however, its WordPerfect translators are not all that good in my experience. Some paragraph formatting always gets mangled, especially (but not only) in tables. NeoOffice appears to do a better job of rendering WordPerfect documents. As for converting documents to the WordPerfect formats, again my experience is not very positive—but I am talking about issues affecting French texts in particular.

    silas: I am only bad-mouthing WP based on the fact that it freezes when I try to open certain RTF files that open just fine in any other application (Mac or Windows) that I try—and that it adds “Z” prefixes to my accented “é” characters without my permission. (Dan: I agree with you that it probably has to do with Unicode…) Apart from that, I don’t have any specific problems with it :-). As for the “Reveal Codes” stuff, well, it’s just a bit too scary for me and my good old WYSIWYG inclinations… (And the government agencies that I work for certainly don’t seem to have that great a need for “powerful and exact formatting options.” I barely ever get any documents that use style sheets in any way, shape or form, let alone half-properly.)

    I am certainly not defending Microsoft, either with respect to its industrial tactics or with respect to the quality of its own products, far from it! But based on my (admittedly limited) experience, WordPerfect can’t be a much more pleasant experience.

    I am always keeping an eye on word-processing alternatives, and am waiting for the “Pro” version of Nisus. I’ll have to see how good a job it does with WordPerfect files.

  7. Cynops says:

    I have the same problem but I get around it by simply using WordPerfect 11 via Parallels.
    I don’t have time to screw around with translators and the people I work with don’t want their files fouled up. Word Perfect 11 is not hard to wrap your brain around and I have found it to be quite stable. You can still buy a nice, new, fully legal copy of WordPerfect 11 for about $100-. If you want to keep your clients happy, which is usually a good thing, just bite the bullet and use the program that your clients use.

  8. Arden says:

    Just return translated files as PDF’s. I know, I know, it’ll annoy everyone because they don’t have Adobe Reader installed, but it’ll save you lots of time and effort. And that, of course, is the most important thing. You didn’t need them as clients anyway.

  9. dmglaw says:

    if you woul like to send me a file, i’d be happy to convert it so you can see what you get. The results are really very good dgoldman is my email and if you put your mouse over my name above you will see the domain.

  10. Pierre Igot says:

    Cynops: Personally, I really want to avoid having to do actual work in Windows XP within Parallels as much as possible. It’s OK for testing stuff, but when it comes to actual work, I need a number of tools (Spell Catcher X, Default Folder X, etc.) that are not available in that environment.

    Arden: PDF’s not an option. They need to be able to edit the files. And I don’t really have a choice about having them as clients. They are part of my regular, full-time job clientele.

    dmglaw: Thanks for the offer. But I have to figure out a way to make this work on my own.

  11. danridley says:

    The hardest thing about moving from Windows to OS X for me was giving up Wordperfect.

    Agreed. I actually considered running WP/Mac 3.5 in Classic when I made the switch, but I knew I’d have to bite the bullet eventually.

    ut based on my (admittedly limited) experience, WordPerfect can’t be a much more pleasant experience.

    Lockups and crashes are lousy, of course, but WP is a dream compared to WinWord. Again, they’ve lost their edge a bit with 12 and X3, but there’s still a wealth of power and utility there. Real table of contents and index features, cross-references that maintain themselves, the ability for people with minimal training to clean up even fairly hairy formatting issues with Reveal Codes…

    It’s never been entirely free of stability issues, but up to v12 it was at least better than WinWord in that regard. X3’s stability can only claim to be no worse than Word, which isn’t a very high bar.

  12. Arden says:

    Arden: PDF’s not an option. They need to be able to edit the files. And I don’t really have a choice about having them as clients. They are part of my regular, full-time job clientele.

    Aw man, you just gave away the punchline!

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