Thursday Sep 25, 2008

OpenOffice.org Power Tools

Splash-screen from OOo v3, designed by Jacek Adamkiewicz

You may have seen that version 3 of OpenOffice.org is nearly ready for release - I am now running release candidate 2 and finding it ideal for work. Along with the new release, there's an important change emerging in OpenOffice.org development. For the last 18 months or so, the team has avoided adding significant new features to the core code, focussing instead in performance and usability improvements as well as on preparing a full, native Aqua port of OpenOffice.org to Mac OS X. That hasn't meant that innovation has stopped, however. Instead, the developers have been able to devise valuable new functions for OpenOffice.org without having to mess around inside the (undeniably complex) core code.

The result has been the emergence of many add-ons for all parts of OpenOffice.org and all supported platforms, by virtue of the Add-On Manager and the powerful platform-neutral UNO API offered by OpenOffice.org. After a discussion with Allison Randal on identi.ca about which tools to use, I thought I'd spend a little time while I wait here at the airport describing the add-ons I find are essential.

  1. Presenter Console

    My absolute favourite add-on is the Presenter Console. This adds a new display mode to Impress so that, when using an external monitor (i.e. a projector) the laptop screen differs from the external display. While the audience sees the slides being presented, the presenter sees the slide sequence, speaker notes and a timer and is able to navigate directly to slides if necessary. It's a familiar function with some other packages but it revolutionises Impress as a presentation tool and I have been using it constantly since it first appeared.
  2. PDF Importer

    Next favourite is the PDF Import Extension. As the name implies, this enables OpenOffice.org to import PDF files so that the text they contain can be edited. It's not perfect, not least because it imports into the layout tool (Draw) but it has proven so useful time and time again when I have been supplied with a "dead" PDF file from which I have needed to derive some "live" text.
  3. Presentation Minimiser

    The Presentation Minimiser can be a real problem-solver. I use photographs extensively in my presentations, and the resulting ODT files can be absolutely huge. This add-on does its best to make the file the minimum size possible by removing unused templates, rescaling graphics and doing other tricks to eliminate wastage. Having it on-hand is essential for me when I need to e-mail presentations to other people.
  4. Template Packs

    One of the common criticisms of OpenOffice.org when compared with other packages was that it didn't include templates to allow people to build appealing presentations. Sun included commercially-created templates in StarOffice, but has now paid the originators for permission to make the two template packs freely available to all OpenOffice.org users. Template Pack 1 will be familiar to many StarOffice users; Template Pack 2 includes a range of newer templates and is my favourite. The packs are also available in a range of languages in addition to English.

There are plenty of other add-ons available and which I'm gradually trying, but these are the ones that have become part of my work style. Individually, each of these add-ons has been very helpful for me. Together, they represent a set of power tools I'd not be able to get by without any more.

Wednesday May 21, 2008

Microsoft Embraces ODF, At Last

Slipstreaming Gull

I was tidying in my office recently and found my attendee badge for the Open Source Convention held in Monterey in 2000. The big news that year (apart from the fact that the world didn't end) was that Sun, which had just bought a German company called Star Division, was releasing their flagship product StarOffice under an open source license and sponsoring a new open source community called OpenOffice.org. The t-shirts we all received just said "Freedom". We all had high hopes that simple but bold move, as well as giving all of us a great document suite, would begin to lubricate the market for document tools and get its corroded competitive gears turning again.

I'm now completely convinced that it worked. The widespread adoption of OpenOffice.org both on Windows (for which millions of copies of OO.o are downloaded each year) and on GNU/Linux (where it is distributed with almost every copy) was an early sign. The growth of OpenDocument format from a seed planted by OpenOffice.org to an independent plant nurtured by OASIS to a spreading young tree at ISO was another.

But today there are many senses in which we all in the OpenOffice.org community could be delighted at our influence on the world of software. The steady pressure has paid off. Not just because OpenOffice.org is better than ever at version 3.0 (now available in a native Mac version among others). But because we were accused of being derivative, yet it's now our innovation that is setting the pace.

Change of Heart?

I'm referring to the announcement Microsoft just made that they will be issuing a service pack for Office that adds native support for ODF. I've been repeatedly calling on them to support ODF like they do many other formats, and to do so in a way that makes it just another format that can be made the default. They've said they will as of SP2, and I warmly congratulate them on finally overcoming the NIH and FUD instincts. Way to go!

More than that, they also announced they will join the OASIS ODF TC and work to develop ODF. I've also been calling on them to do this, pretty much since the TC was formed right in front of them (they are board members at OASIS) in 2002. I'm not a member personally, but if I were I would want to warmly welcome them to the team as it enters the final straights towards completion of ODF 1.2 and submission to ISO.

Of course, I might also reflect on the fact they are finally doing exactly what Stephe Walli said they ought to do to kill ODF. But for now, it's huge, warm congratulations on giving your customers the freedom to leave and the confidence to stay - and a small British mutter of "about bloody time".

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.

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