September 22, 2008

FastMailMerge rationalizes OpenOffice.org Merge functions

Author: Bruce Byfield

Mail merge, the production of multiple documents that differ only in minor details, remains a difficult task in OpenOffice.org Writer. Few use the function regularly, and when they do, the mail merge wizard seems to cause as much confusion as it resolves. Writer's original mail merge feature, retrievable from Tools -> Customize -> Add -> Documents -> Mail Merge is somewhat more straightforward, but, even with it, users are likely to confuse the original document and the information source. In comparison to those other alternatives, FastMailMerge is not only simplicity itself, but a welcome relief that easily lives up to its name.

Extension series

FastMailMerge is a typical OpenOffice.org extension. After downloading it, you install it from Tools -> Extension Manager, and it is then available the next time you start OpenOffice.org. The only confusion you are likely to have is that it appears on the toolbar of Calc, rather than Writer's.

To start any mail merge, you need to decide what information to use from your data source. For example, if you are producing multiple copies of a letter, you probably want to use the name and address fields in your data source. Similarly, if you are sending email, you will need a recipient field.

Once you have your needs figured out, you can compose the source document in Writer. If your mail merge is a one-time action, you can leave a space where each field is going to go. However, if you might reuse the document or save it as a template, consider adding a Placeholder field by selecting Insert -> Fields -> Other -> Functions -> Placeholder. Define the Placeholder as text, then give it a name, such as Address or Recipient, and you'll be able to identify the information that goes there when you view the document six months later. For your own convenience, the name should be the same as the column heading in the spreadsheet that holds your data.

When the source document is ready and saved, open the spreadsheet that has the information for the mail merge and select your data. As with any spreadsheet, you can select the column header to select all the cells in the column, or press the Ctrl key while clicking with the left mouse button to select cells that are not next to one another. Be sure to include column headers in your selections, since they will become the field names and will help you to keep track of what you are doing.

Then click the FastMailMerge icon. If you have selected only one column, you will be asked to confirm that you want to continue, and then given the choice of creating a new Writer document or using an existing document. Although you can create a source document at this point in the process, you are generally better off having prepared it beforehand, if only because the FastMailMerge dialog window can get in your way as you write.

The dialog requires that you place the cursor where you want each field to go in the document. If you used placeholders, all you need to do is select the appropriate placeholder. You are also asked to click a button in the dialog if the field is the subject of an email message, and another if it is the recipient.

Clicking the OK button brings you to a new dialog window, from which you set the type of output you want: print, or an email attachment in PDF, DOC, ODT, or HTML format. You also have the option of delaying the interval between copies going to the printer or your email program, although you are unlikely to have any problems with the default one second unless you are using a computer that is more than a few years old. Emails are generated but not sent in your default email program; you must click Send on each message to send it. Printed documents are sent directly to the printer.

FastMailMerge is a little shaky in places. If you want to create a new document, and one is already open from a previous merge, the extension crashes. Probably more importantly, it takes information only from a spreadsheet, and not from address books or databases, as the other mail merge options do. Moreover, if you want to print the multiple copies to a file, you have to adjust your default printer before you complete the process.

However, these problems can all be worked around, and probably affect only a minority of users. What makes FastMailMerge so useful is that it has done what seven years as a free software project could not -- given OpenOffice.org an easy-to-understand mail merge process that is likely to satisfy 95% of use cases. This accomplishment is rare enough that, if you use mail merge at all, you should find FastMailMerge a must-have extension.

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