OoO 3.0 Beta & cross references

It still looks butt ugly but at least this bug was partially addressed in the latest beta release of Open Office. The opening date for this one, “Dec 19 19:13:00 +0000 2001”. That’s more than seven years ago! This show stopper has prevented me from writing my thesis, any scientific articles, or in fact anything serious in open office since writing such things requires proper cross reference functionality. But finally, they implemented the simple feature of actually being able to refer to paragraph numbers of something elsewhere in the document using an actual cross reference. This is useful to be able to refer to numbered references, figures, tables, formulas, theorems, sections, etc.

The process for this bug went something like this “you don’t need cross references” (imagine star wars type gesture here). Really for a bunch of people implementing a word processor the mere length of the period they maintained this point of view was shocking and to me has always been a strong indication that they might not be that well suited for the job of creating an actual word processor. Then they went on to a infinite loop of “hmm maybe we can hack something for open office 1.1 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 3.0″ and “we need to fix this because imported word documents are breaking over this” (never mind that real authors might need this for perfectly valid reasons). This went on for a very very long time, and frankly I have long since stopped considering open office as a serious alternative for doing my word processing.

I just tried it in 3.0 beta and it actually works now, sort of. Testing new OoO releases for this has become somewhat of a ritual for me. For years, the first thing I did after downloading OoO was try to insert a few cross references before shaking my head and closing the window. The UI is still horribly unusable but at least the feature is there now if you know where to look for it.

Six years ago Framemaker was the only alternative that met my technical requirements of being an actual word processor with a UI and features that support the authoring process (unlike latex, which is a compiler),  the ability to use cross references, and flexible but very strictly applied formatting. Theoretically word can do all of this as well but I don’t recommend it for reasons of buggyness and the surprising ease with which you can lose hours of work due to word automatically rearranging & moving things for you when you e.g. insert a picture, pasting a table, etc (and yes I’ve seen documents corrupt themselves just by doing these things).

The last few years, I’ve used open office only to be able to open the odd word/powerpoint file dropping in my inbox at home. I basically have close to no office application needs here at home. For my writing at work needs, I usually adapt to what my coauthors use (i.e. word and sometimes latex).  Framemaker has basically been dying since Adobe bought it. The last version I used was 6.0 and the last occasion I used it was when writing my phd thesis.

stuff gets released

Lots of stuff has been released or is about to be released. Enough to warrant a little blog post about this stuff.

Open Office 2.0

The 2.0 version is a nice improvement over 1.1. OOo 1.1 sucked IMHO but 2.0 might convince me to actually use it. If only they fixed the bugs I reported four years ago on crossreferences (not implemented properly). Without fixes for that, I can’t write large, structured content in it (i.e. scientific articles). But still, quite an improvement. Importing of office stuff now actually works. I managed to import and save an important spreadsheet at work and removed about 9 MB of redundant data in the process (no idea where this came from), which makes working with the file over the network a lot less frustrating. Also it seems to actually be able to work with word documents without seriously messing up layout and internal structure (and its a lot faster on large documents). In short, compatibility now works more or less as advertised for the past four years (1.1 didn’t, even for trivial stuff). It’s still quite ugly though and lots of usability challenges remain unaddressed. Looking cool is not a product feature, nor is blending in with your OS. It remains the poormans alternative to MS Office.

Update. It looks like I was wrong about not messing up word documents. I did some roundtrip editing on a document written in word and OOo thoroughly messed it up. It turns out it doesn’t handle documents with adjusted page settings. It applied the page settings for the title page to the whole document. As a concequence it looks like shit, all the headers and footers are in the wrong place. It’s a lot of work to fix it too.

Maven 2.0

I spent some time with a release candidate and decided not to use it. The reasons were a mix of poor documentation and a dislike of the structure it tries to enforce on everything you do. I’m pretty sure the ideas behind it are ok but it just doesn’t feel right yet. In short it didn’t pass the fifteen minute test they put on their website: the documentation keeps telling you how beautiful and useful maven is without actually telling you anything about how it works. Some crucial things are lacking like explaining how these dependencies actually work, where the repository where it magically pulls all these jar files from is, how to set up your own repository, etc.

In the end I prefer the more verbose nature of ant. I have a lot of experience writing ant build files now. I’ve even written a few ant tasks at work. I happen to both like and need its flexibility a lot. I don’t see how maven solves any of the more non trivial stuff I do it (other than allowing me to use ant).

The assumptions maven is based on are IMHO incorrect. First of all it is tool centric, if you don’t structure your projects the way it likes you’ll have lots of trouble trying to get it to do anything useful (that means it won’t be used where I work now or any other place that has an existing, complex project). Secondly it solves a lot of easy stuff that is not really a problem with ant and not much else. Compiling, generating javadoc, etc. is not that hard with ant. In fact, most of the time I reuse the same tasks for that (by importing it). And, finally, maven just adds complexity. I find maven projects hideously complicated in their structure. I’ve seen quite a few maven projects and they all spread their source code over numerous modules in nested directories. I don’t want to structure my projects like that. But the most important thing is that maven doesn’t actually solve any problem I have.

Mysql 5.0

Nice to finally see this arrive. I expect this to have some consequences for the use of commercial databases in the next few years. At work our customers still prefer commercial stuff like oracle or mssql. Increasingly this has more to do with irrationality than actual features that are actually used. Performance certainly has little to do with it. Nor does scalability. Our webapp is a few dozen simple tables with some optional stored procedures. The latter are what have kept us from fully supporting mysql though arguably they are not required in our app.

Firefox 1.5 RC1
The release candidate should be ready right about now or very soon anyway. Beta2 has worked flawlessly here, as did Beta1. See my earlier review of the beta for more details.

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.