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What Ails OpenOffice (And Whether Lotus Symphony Is The Cure)

Now there, generally, I’m quite tolerant about what shortcoming any free / open source software might have, but as I said, I’m pretty tolerant about that. This one deserves to be blasted though.

Frankly, I’ve lost all interest in OpenOffice ever since I came across IBM’s Lotus Symphony. Yes, I’m perfectly aware that right now it’s under a proprietary license – but that’s because it modifies an older code-base of OpenOffice (v1.x), which was dual-licensed. Anyway, Symphony 2.0 will also be released, and will have to be open source as the OOo v2.x code-base is under LGPL. Why do I like this new entrant? Here’s why:

  • Tabbed interface: It’s high time someone did this, given that it has been so popular in the web browser market. Lotus Symphony has a tabbed interface – which means, you can open up a word document, a spreadsheet, and a presentation – all in one window in tabs. Or any combination of the type of documents.
  • Context-sensitive editing: Many people have said time and again that they find MS Office 2007’s Ribbon-style confusing. Symphony finds an elegant solution to that, by keep the normal formatting bar where it should be; and instead, adding a context-sensitive sidebar. So for example, when you open a presentation, the sidebar shows stuff that you can do on a slide / page; while if you click on an object (like a picture or a text box), it changes to show stuff you can do on that object. Even the formatting bar at the top keeps graying out options which can’t be used at that time.
  • Better looks!: I wouldn’t have admitted this fact earlier, but since Symphony is out, to hell with OOo. Absolutely childish icons, as if they had been made in TuxPaint. In fact, I’m darn sure they must have been made in TuxPaint. Symphony’s interface is the total opposite, with a nice cool blue shade, and everything else which doesn’t look like a GTK+ program. Put simply, it looks elegant.

And of course the, opening screen. Like Vivek said:

IBM. They get the point across very clearly, don’t they?

That apart, Symphony is still in beta (testing) stage, so I don’t advise people (except geeks, who install software just for the heck of it) to start using this. Indeed, it doesn’t work as desired at all times – especially with images in presentations. Wait on for the final release, which would be in a few months.

Why this sudden tirade against OOo though? I’m fed up. FED UP of Sun Microsystems, and their absolutely we-won’t-bother-to-do-anything except-use-Sun-JRE-put-our-logo-and-let-the-community-do-every other-goddamn-thing-on-their-own-attitude. For the exam coming up this Sunday, I thought of revising from the PPTs that my coaching institute (Career Launcher) makes. Fair enough, except that being a gung-ho FOSS freak, I wanted to convert them to OpenDocument format before proceeding. Saves space too, and is more responsive on OpenOffice. So I decided to use its Document Converter Wizard – which I had used earlier for documents (.DOC) files – since I had quite a few PPTs.

That would seem to be that, except that the final OpenDocument Presentations (ODPs) that it created were horribly mangled: they were missing transitions, images placed haywire, certain characters with their font pitch awry; and it was all selective. Not on every slide, not on every presentation, but randomly and in most of them. Mystified, I used the ‘Save As’ option to recreate some manually from the PPTs, and they came out fine.

So here’s the bottomline – it’s obviously not a fault of the ODP format, but more of OpenOffice itself. And if I’m not wrong, the conversion wizard was Sun’s baby, and uses the Java Runtime Environment. OpenOffice enjoys a lot of free publicity, just because it’s the first thing airhead tech reviewers with no knowledge of open source (other than Ol’ Faithful Wikipedia), know about. And it’s a disgrace that THIS is the face of open source software that people see. It lacks that polish. Full marks to IBM, for Lotus Symphony clearly shows that IBM has made some investment in that project. I still won’t go all-out supporting it, unless a GPL / LGPL version comes out, but Symphony shows that something kick-ass can be made – that from OpenOffice code-base itself.

On the other hand, with Sun Microsystems, I’m clearly pissed after this incident. The document converter is something MANY people might use after switching, and clearly, not enough attention has been paid. I tried it on Linux, then on Windows; and on different versions of OOo – the latest one (v2.4) and the older one (v2.3) – both gave the same error. Sun, it seems, only bothers to associate itself with OOo so that it can take a snapshot of the code, stick an $80 price tag, and sell StarOffice. Of course, and they have to push Java also with it.

That’s not just ‘it’ either. On Linux AND Windows, I’ve seen that OOo is brought down to its knees by MS Office format files, with the problem being more pronounced in Windows. On Linux, it’s a slight delay which you’d only notice if you’ve opened ODF files earlier – the difference is very slight. On Windows, you’re roadkill with an MS Office file on OOo – especially if you haven’t enabled its QuickStarter. No, it’s not about my system. On an HP laptop running Windows Vista Business Edition, with 1 GB RAM and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, OOo takes longer to open a PPT than my Linux box, with around 256 MB RAM (after one of my RAM chips was blown) and an AMD Athlon 2800+ processor. And I’ve seen that multiple times. What next? Expect people to switch to Linux to be able to open their documents faster? My bet is that people will give Linux a wide berth, especially if they use OpenOffice first.

Just pray that Symphony comes out in a free / open source licensed version soon. For your own sake (if you use open source software), and for the image of our community on the whole.

0 replies on “What Ails OpenOffice (And Whether Lotus Symphony Is The Cure)”

KOffice gives me what I want. I use mostly KWord only, but I have found a few uses for KPresenter too. I never liked Ooo. Because it is bloated and slow like hell. For compatibilty with M$, I use Abiword.

@Apoorv: KOffice is still not a very polished suite, IMO. Yes, less bloated than OOo, but not that polished either. Right now, it’s just a rag-tag bunch of code that they decided to bundle together. As for Abiword, compatibility is one thing I can’t attribute to it. It doesn’t support images within documents – and I suspect the reason is that what it claims to be support for .DOC is actually .RTF; try it, save a .DOC file in it, then open in OOo, and try a save as. See the default which comes up. That would explain the ‘no pics’.

@Apoorv: Even for RTF, it doesn’t render the document the way it is supposed to be, in the sense that it doesn’t render spacing, line breaks, and font pitch and height correctly.

OpenOffice has only been ported to Windows and Mac OS X. It is not optimised to run like every other app does on this operating system. The slow development is probably because of the paid alternatives(pirated or not) that people are sticking to, while using Windows.

As for Mac OS X, NeoOffice is OpenOffice recompiled to work natively on the operating system for it to be as snappy as possible. A cocoa build is expected soon, that will probably be even snappier than Microsoft Office 2008.

For daily use, I actually find AbiWord’s feature set more than sufficient.

@Abhishek: I find Abiword irritating to work with, because of its often incorrect rendering. I might add here that OpenOffice was derived from StarOffice (initially), which was a Windows based app. And just because it’s ported doesn’t mean it has a right to run slow. Inexcusable. I’ve seen so many ported apps which run as well on Windows as they do on Linux. Hell, even Lotus Symphony, which modifies the OOo code-base, is zippy on Windows. I hope Lotus Symphony solves this mess soon.

PS – Nice to hear you defending open source software. šŸ™‚

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