Open Office 2.0 Beta

Open office 2.0 is out and here’s a little review on the features that matter to me. That excludes all components except writer.

Lets start with my main problem with this release: they didn’t fix cross references. I’ve complained on issuezilla about this since before 1.0. Over the years I have grown convinced that either they don’t understand the problem or are not interested in fixing it (which would be the logical result of misunderstanding the issue). Anyhow, crossreferences are still badly broken. This means I won’t spend much time with open office regardless of its other qualities since crossreferences are very important to me (far more important than say word compatibility or shiny features I won’t use). In a document I typically have numbered stuff such as literature references, section, figures, tables etc all over my documents. Open office doesn’t offer an easy way to do refer to such items and editing them manually is not an option for any kind of structured document (e.g. scientific articles, legal articles, phd & master thesises, etc.).

UI. The user interface seems to have improved. But then it was really bad in version 1.x. It still looks like it doesn’t belong on the OS you are using (regardless of the OS). But lets be honest, things have improved. And of course SUN has a way of making enduser software feel awkward like no other software company. Their marketing department has clearly been all over the ui and tried to make the engineers hide all the non nativeness. So they’ve duplicated many of the office 2003 features but they remain bad copies that are clearly different in both look and feel. They’ve ditched the one application for everything paradigm (good); added dragable toolbars (no contextmenu for customization though). The application icons are still very windows 3.1 like (the commercial version probably will fix that). This is where the improvements stop, the rest of the software is still a usability nightmare. Some examples: the cross reference dialog (just open it and see for yourself); the task pane (improved but still awkwardly crowded with incomprehensible icons); the options pane (yikes!). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here: Sun does not understand end users and it shows in all their software products with open office as the best example.

Imports. Still not perfect but much better than version 1. I work in structured way using words features more or less as they are supposed to be used (I don’t use new lines for whitespace, I use crossreferences for numbering, I leave figure positioning to word, I use paragraph styles for formatting, etc). Given that, you’d expect more or less perfect results when importing documents in OOO. Well at least the results are usable (i.e. the layout is not mangled like in 1.x). The images appear where you’d expect them. But again crossreferences are a problem. In all my documents, the crossreferences do not import correctly and lose their formatting. For example my literature references are a numbered list of references at the end of my papers. Inside the papers there are countless refs to the list items like foo [22]. Open office loses the brackets and with no obvious way of making the references there’s no way to get them back. It’s broken and you can’t fix it. And then there’s the strange behaviour of page numbering: I had no page numbering before the import but OOO ‘fixed’ that?! Thanks but no thanks. But credit where credit is due: the word import is very fast and overall more correct than 1.x.

Installer. Sun still hasn’t figured out how to make a proper installer for windows: hint zipping up a lot of files is not the way to go. Windows users are used to easy downloads and then a double click to launch the installer. Technically easy to realize and yet Sun does not understand they need to fix this. At least it is multiuser now (that was downright embarrassing in 1.x).

Conclusion. Excellent if you are a casual office user and don’t need/understand word anyway. It’s has quite a bit of usability problems but seems reasonably fast and feature complete. Don’t expect pixel perfect compatibility with office but you will be able to open most documents and edit them. For me the lack of proper crossreferences is the showstopper. I need this and OOO doesn’t have it.