March 9, 2006

First look: KOffice 1.5, part 2: The minor applications

Author: Bruce Byfield

In addition to the three major KOffice applications discussed in part 1 of this series (KWord, KSpread, and KPresenter), KOffice includes nine minor apps which fall into three general categories: subsystems, database and reporting tools, and graphics and charting programs. They present a different perspective than the main applications, which I concluded were best-suited to light use.

These programs are minor only in the sense that they're not the most commonly used parts of the office suite. They tend to be overlooked, in no small part because of the KDE convention of having program names that start with "K," which not only encourages unnecessary Kuteness, but often lead to names that give no indication of a program's purpose. These apps are not minor in terms of functionality; although they're more specialized, KOffice's minor apps often boast more mature feature sets than those of the core apps. They also tend to be closer matches for their OpenOffice.org (OOo) counterparts. Some even provide functionality that OOo lacks.

Subsystems

Subsystems are programs that are generally used from within the core applications. (Although you can open each subsystem by itself, you shouldn't, because the core applications may not be able to use the native format of the subsystem.) Currently, KOffice has two subsystems: KChart and KFormula. Very shortly, I suspect, they'll be joined by KThesaurus.

KChart can generate charts using data from KSpread cells -- although, strangely, not from KWord tables -- or from data entered specially for the chart. The selection of chart templates is limited, especially for 3D charts, but adequate for most purposes. You can customize all aspects of a chart, including the legend, headers and footers, chart title, color, font, axis calibration, and background -- everything except for the position of the axis titles. Technical users might miss the ability to have double axes or to customize axes calibration, and all users are likely to be annoyed by the tendency of 3D charts to appear incorrectly on first display. In general, however, KChart compares favorably to OpenOffice.org's charting subsystem. In fact, KChart has two strong advantages: The default formatting doesn't look like the program is stuck in the mid-1990s, and charts can be expanded to a much larger size than in OOo before they start showing jagged edges.

KOffice's equation editor, KFormula, has several advantages over Math, its OOo equivalent. Characters in KFormula are entered directly into the editing window, rather than in a text window (although first-time users may be put off by the way that the formula starts in the upper left corner). Users don't need to master a specialized scripting language to troubleshoot an equation or to fine-tune layout. KFormula is also conveniently designed for input -- equation templates, delimiters, and character sets are grouped close together on the toolbars, instead of separately as in Math. The utility uses standard typographical conventions for inserting spaces, and its online help includes links for free mathematical fonts. Although KFormula has fewer equation templates and character sets than Math, it's not far behind. Just as importantly, KFormula has the advantage of being comprehensible to any moderately experienced computer user at a glance.

KThesaurus is currently a standalone program, but would work well as a subsystem. It would be especially handy to be able to search on a highlighted word in KWord. By default, KThesaurus offers synonyms grouped in three panes: all results, more general results, and more specific results. Because the division of general and specific results is subjective and frequently obscure, this arrangement isn't very useful. However, KThesaurus also includes a tab for results if WordNet is installed. WordNet groups results by concept, so its results encourage users to think about exactly what they mean -- a richer approach that's rare in both online and hardcopy thesauruses.

Database and reporting

In the past, KOffice's database functionality was one of its weak areas. New to version 1.5, Kexi is KOffice's answer to Microsoft Access or OpenOffice.org's Base. Like both these programs, Kexi opens with a wizard, but Kexi's wizard is far simpler than Base's, asking only for a name for the database, and whether you want the new database stored as a file or on a database server. No wizards are included for adding tables, forms, or queries, but users are unlikely to feel the loss. Because Kexi is designed to work only with its own file format, it doesn't need to register data source types, the way Base does, so it has fewer options to worry about. It also boasts a much less cluttered -- and therefore less intimidating -- interface, without sacrificing any functionality.

I haven't tested Kexi with serious number-crunching, but it seems more than adequate for the small databases for which Access and Base are intended. In other words, it fills the gap between spreadsheets and heavy-duty databases such as MySQL or PostgreSQL. Unlike Base, Kexi doesn't depend on Java for full functionality, which avoids the problem for free software supporters of Java's non-free status, and the slow response time that results when users substitute the GNU Compiler for Java (GCJ) for regular Java.

An even weaker area for KOffice is its reporting functionality. Kugar is KOffice's report writer for generating such information as monthly sales figures or current inventory for business -- and probably the most ignored KOffice application. It's also the least familiar-looking of KOffice's apps. To use Kugar, you need to design a template for the report by using the kudesigner command, and then merge the data from an XML file to produce a report. Until you've designed the template, opening Kugar itself is likely to result only in puzzlement. Designing the XML file is no simpler, although you can export a KSpread file. The merged result resembles a merge document done in a word processing program such as OOo, but the decentralized structure of Kexi makes the program harder to learn than it needs to be. Fortunately, a detailed tutorial is available on the Web.

Adding support for each other's formats would seem a natural step to realize the power of both Kexi and Kugar. After all, what better data source could you have for a report than a database? Disappointingly, the 1.5 beta doesn't add such support. In fact, Kexi's files don't export to any format usable from Kugar. Both programs would be more useful if they could work together.

Graphics and charting

The picture improves when you look at KOffice's graphics tools and charting programs, which make up almost half of KOffice's minor applications. They consist of the general purpose Krita and Karbon14 (or Karbon, as it is generally known) and the more specialized Kivio and KPlato.

Karbon and Krita go together like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. In other words, Karbon is an editor for scalable vector graphics (SVG) and Krita for rasterized graphics, and the two closely resemble each other. In fact, with their dockable floating toolbars and palettes, Krita and Karbon also bear a distinct resemblance to their Adobe counterparts. Most of these interface elements are open and docked when one of the programs starts, leaving you little workspace unless you have at least a 21-inch monitor. However, you can change the setup easily by closing the unneeded palettes and undocking the toolbar.

Both apps have a full array of palettes, including those for color management, command history, layer management, and configuration of the current selection on the floating toolbar. Krita also includes palettes for brushes (which resembles the selections for brushes in the GIMP), patterns, and gradients; Karbon includes palettes for stroke, style, and transformation. In both programs, palettes are docked in two panes and tabbed to save space. Tools are equally complete, and include pens and brushes for freehand drawing, basic shapes, graphical text, color pickers, and erasers. All in all, both Krita and Karbon provide useful tools for editing graphics in an interface that requires very little learning, especially for professional designers coming from Windows.

However, at least in the 1.5 beta, Krita and Karbon share at least two important limitations. To start with, neither can read the other's native format, although they can share files exported to other formats. Since the native format is generally the surest way to preserve all details of formatting, this problem lessens the usefulness of having matching SVG and rasterized graphics programs. Secondly, both churn up to three or four times longer than OpenOffice.org's Draw or the GIMP when opening files larger than a few megabytes. Even worse, when files are larger than about 15MB, both Krita and Karbon -- when they finally display the file -- show only the background color. To these problems, Karbon adds a tendency to crash when importing any graphic format. In addition, pasting large blocks of text is glacially slow, and the display of text in Karbon is one of the worst I've seen in a graphical program.

Whether these problems will be fixed in the final 1.5 release is uncertain. However, as long as such issues exist, both Krita and Karbon fall short of their potential. For now, plan to use them only for graphics under a megabyte in size, and if you're a professional designer, don't expect to rely on them.

By contrast, Kivio and KPlato do less, but have fewer faults. Kivio, a flowchart program, is comparable to Dia in its selection of stencil sets -- in fact, it borrows from Dia -- and far exceeds the small selection of basic shapes available in OOo for flowcharts. Its layout is consistent with other KOffice programs, with a docked palette for stencil sets on the left, setting tabs on the right, and page tabs at the bottom of the middle pane.

Similarly, KPlato resembles GNOME's Imendio Planner -- or, for that matter, any other project management software that you may have seen. Opening on a Gantt chart for scheduling projects, KPlato offers views for resources (people working on the project), accounts, and reports. Standard settings such as the work time and work breakdown structure (project outlining) are customizable, as are task defaults. Aside from KPlato's lack of online documentation, both Kivio and KPlato are well-designed and full-featured programs of their kind, with little to praise or with which to find fault.

Conclusion

At the end of part 1 of this series, I concluded that KOffice was suitable for light home or office use, but that demanding users would find it less suitable. Some of the minor programs challenge that judgment, because they have more complete feature sets than the major applications. However, Krita's and Karbon's troubles with handling large documents mirror some of the problems with KWord and KSpread; so, on the whole, the judgment remains.

Looking at the minor applications also raises another issue: the lack of integration between KOffice applications. Unlike OpenOffice.org, whose applications share some of their code, KOffice is very noticeably a collection of distinct programs. Keeping the programs distinct is convenient, because it allows users to download only the tools they need. However, KOffice programs go further than that. Although their interfaces are gradually becoming as similar as different functions permit, the interoperability of KOffice programs is often minimal. While most KOffice programs can embed files from other programs, many cannot import or use each other's formats. The resulting inconvenience is especially noticeable with Kexi and Kugar and with Krita and Karbon. In both cases, greater ability to interact with the complementary program would be of benefit. The switch to OpenDocument as the default format may improve this problem, but, since OpenDocument reporting seems unreliable in the beta, how much of a difference the switch will make remains to be seen.

If I were evaluating KOffice solely on the basis of the minor applications, I would rate it somewhat higher than when looking at only the major apps. Although the minor apps do less than KWord, KSpread, or KPresenter, they do their tasks more thoroughly. However, when KOffice is viewed as a whole, it remains a work in progress.

Someday, KOffice may match OOo feature for feature. But, if the 1.5 beta is any indication, that day is still several releases away.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and ITManagersJournal.com.

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