January 2, 2007

Book review: OpenOffice.org 2 Guide

Author: Christian Einfeldt

OpenOffice.org expert Solveig Haugland has published a massive new manual called the OpenOffice.org 2 Guide. This 520-page tome will be useful both for OOo newbies and power users who are interested in learning arcane features of the office suite.

What does Haugland's $28 book have that the free online guides don't? The primary distinction is that Haugland's book is one work in one place, whereas the community's guides are available for sale in the form of separate books on the main OOo programs (Writer, Calc, Draw, Impress) for generally $10 to $20, or for free download.

Another distinction is that Haugland's book comes with a good index, whereas the OOo community publishes its Writer Guide, for example, without an index. Also, some readers may simply prefer a book to online support for many issues. I like to actually flip through a book and dog-ear the pages. For me, clicking on multi-page view of a PDF or OOo itself is not the same.

Tell them what you're going to tell them...

It's said that when teaching or presenting to an audience, you need to tell them what you're going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you told them. Haugland follows that practice in her Guide.

Free stuff

Haugland has posted her table of contents online and is giving away three chapters of the book for free.

She starts out with a useful one-page summary table of contents just inside the front cover. Next comes a detailed five-page table of contents, which breaks the book down into seven sections that correspond to OOo's five main programs (Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, and Base), sandwiched nicely between a friendly "Getting Started" section and a useful appendix.

When I'm looking for a user manual for OOo, I want accurate, concise answers, and I want them fast. I don't want to hunt all over the book for related tasks, and I don't like distracting sidebars and panels. Haugland 's teaching background pays off for here. The book flows logically from one subject to the next.

For example, Haugland knows from practical experience that one of the first things that a user should do with OOo is to go into the Tools -> Options menu setting to set up default settings. A new user might just jump into using OOo without thinking in advance about automating through using templates, or thinking in advance about whether to use Microsoft Office formats as default formats. Haugland holds new users' hands and shows them how to do so in her "Getting Started" section.

The book relies on clear screenshots supplemented with arrows and circles to draw the reader's gaze to relevant areas of the graphics. OOo is a GUI-intensive program, and so knowing where to click is crucial. Haugland's emphasis on graphics is apt, and her images are well supported by concise, usually numbered steps which readers need to take to accomplish tasks.


A bit of history

Haugland and Floyd Jones published the first significant manual on using OOo, called the OpenOffice.org 1.0 Resource Kit, in 2003, but as a Sun Microsystems Education Services employee, Haugland was documenting the StarOffice suite before Sun announced its open-sourcing in 2000. She maintains a Web site and a geeky blog dedicated to all things OOo.

I was disappointed to see that Haugland has pared down the book's scope compared with her first book, which ran 1,019 pages including the index. This book is greatly abbreviated by comparison. Take, for example, her approach to the arcane subject of editing bezier curves, which are lines defined by a series of points. In the first book, she has no less than 14 topic headings under the general heading of "curves" in the index. This book lists one general index heading and directs you to an eight-page chunk of text where your questions about editing icons may or may not be answered. (I was unable to find an answer to the question I had about editing point icons on the object bar in Draw.) That means some readers may want to buy the first book or visit the OOo discuss lists or forums, or visit Haugland's blog, which supplements the second book.

Who should or should not buy this book

There are three groups of people who should not buy this book:

  • Rank newbies, who just want a basic introduction to OpenOffice.org, would be better off buying Robin Miller's Point and Click OpenOffice.org or watching his tutorial videos online.

  • Extreme power users, who will find the OOo community forums offer answers to their esoteric technical questions.

  • People who know that they will use only one of OOo's five main programs, and that they will never use the other programs, should consider buying one of the community's dedicated guides or downloading it for free.

But if you use OOo for your daily office productivity tasks and you know that you could be making much more efficient use of your time if you were more facile with OOo's considerable capabilities, Haugland's big, detailed guide makes a nice book to have at hand when you are looking for answers to detailed how-to questions.

Christian Einfeldt is a Linux-loving attorney in private practice in San Francisco who uses OpenOffice.org daily as a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Office's functionality.

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