April 25, 2007

Do you really need Sun Weblog Publisher?

Author: Bruce Byfield

Suddenly, every application on the desktop seems to be adding a blogging extension. Sun Microsystems' offering is the Sun Weblog Publisher (SWP) for StarOffice and OpenOffice.org. SWP is easy to install and start using, but the translation between the Writer word processor and the markup language used on blogging sites is not as smooth as it should be, and the options for uploading entries are more limited than they should be.

The Sun Weblog Publisher is available for download for $10 from the Sun Global Specials Store. Running on GNU/Linux, Solaris, and Windows, it is available in English and German versions under an end user license agreement that, while granting broad permissions for use on workstations or networks, restricts not only freedoms to copy and modify but also to publish benchmarks and comparisons and to use the software in a nuclear facility.

To run SWP, you need a Java Runtime Environment and either StarOffice 8 Update 4 or OpenOffice.org 2.04 or later. You also need one of the blogging programs that SWP supports: Blogger, Roller, WordPress, Atom, or anything that supports the MetaWeblog API.

Since SWP is written as an add-on, installing it is only a matter of selecting Tools -> Extension Manager in StarOffice or Tools -> Package Manager in OpenOffice.org and specifying the package in the window that opens. The next time you start the office suite, you'll see a Weblog menu added between Tools and Window, with a floating palette of available weblog options.

Once you install Publisher, you need to configure it for use via Weblog -> Settings. The Settings support any number of blogs, each defined by the software it uses, its URL, and username. If you choose, SWP can also remember a blog's password for you. Adding a blog takes several minutes -- long enough that you may wonder if SWP has frozen. During this time, SWP is not only establishing a connection to the blog, but also downloading a list of entries and tags on the blog that you can use later.

Writing and formatting

You can use SWP to write a new blog entry directly in the Writer word processor. Alternatively, you can select Weblog -> Edit recent entry to select an already posted entry to revise. When editing a recent entry, expect some delay as SWP retrieves your list of possible choices.

When you are ready to upload what you are working on, select Weblog -> Send to Weblog. When the dialog window opens, you can choose the defined blog to which to post, the title, and which tag -- or "category," to use SWP's preferred term -- to attach to the entry. Strangely, the choice is limited to one category per entry, despite the fact that most bloggers are sophisticated enough about tagging that you rarely see an entry with just one any more.

You can also choose whether to upload your work as a new entry, publishing it at once, or as a draft, keeping it private. By another quirk of the interface, if you choose to make the entry a draft, you are unable to opt to view the upload immediately in your default Web browser. Since you might very well want to check the formatting of a draft -- especially when you are first starting to use SWP -- and uploading requires you to log in anyway, this omission a needless restriction.

If you have not chosen to have SWP remember your password, you may have to wait about 30 seconds while the software negotiates with your site. But, since all entries are marked-up text files, once uploading begins, it is generally quick, even for entries that are longer than a thousand words.

Whether you are writing or editing, the main advantage of using SWP is that you can use the familiar OpenOffice.org/StarOffice interface rather than need a learn one, such as whatever adaptation of TinyMCE your blog site supports. In practice, though, this advantage is smaller than it sounds. Basic formatting such as italics and bold weights generally survive an upload from SWP to a blog site, but once in the dozen or so experiments I ran with WordPress they failed to do so. Tables were more problematic, uploading properly about half the time, and the other half printing only the contents of individual cells, one to a paragraph. Nor can SWP upload images.

Line art will upload successfully, as long as you remember to group all its elements beforehand. However, it retains the background for the objects, so if you decided to use SWP, you should consider designing a template that has the same background as your blog so that the line art fits in.

Knowing OpenOffice.org and StarOffice's notoriously limited HTML editor and being an advocate of clean code, I was a bit worried when I saw the div tags in the tests uploaded to WordPress -- but I was relieved when I noticed that they did not cause display problems for uploaded entries.

My results suggest that SWP is most useful for blogging with simple formatting. Anything more than text and you should probably check the results rather than trust that they will be flawless -- an extra step that removes some of the convenience of the software.

To use or not?

Is SWP worth installing? The price is reasonable, even if a commercial extension seems contrary to the idea of using extensions to encourage more users to try the main software. Assuming you have no objection to proprietary extensions, the answer depends mainly on your comfort with a variety of interfaces and your formatting needs.

On the one hand, if you already know Writer and prefer it, then using SWP may be a worthwhile alternative to learning whatever new interface your blog's software provides. On the other hand, most interfaces for writing blogs are simple enough that anyone comfortable enough with computing to keep a blog is unlikely to think twice about using them. Many do not require any markup at all.

Similarly, while SWP offers more advanced formatting than many blog interfaces -- in theory, if not always in practice -- the question is how many people need it.

SWP might have found a market a few years ago, when blogging interfaces were less advanced, but now it seems awkwardly positioned, providing a convenience that is either no longer needed or supplied by dozens of other programs, and advanced features that many will never need. Fortunately, uninstalling it is as easy as installing it.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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