March 1, 2005

First look: version 2.0 beta

Author: Bruce Byfield has always been conservative with version numbers. Enough minor releases have boasted enough new features that the current release could easily be 3.0 or 4.0 instead of 1.1.4. Given this record, it's hardly surprising that version 2.0, for which beta code is set to be unveiled very shortly, amounts to a major rewrite of the software. Although key functionality remains largely intact, version 2.0 promises dozens, possibly hundreds, of changes. Many times during our testing of the pre-beta release, we felt we could almost have been looking at an entirely new piece of software.

Although a list of new features in version 2.0 has been posted, some have yet to be implemented. Some may never be implemented. Original plans to rewrite the charting module, for instance, were dropped early in development. Others may still change before final release.

All the same, the beta seems complete enough for a preliminary review. Looking at changes to the installation, interface, general functionality, and the applications themselves, I see much that I welcome, but also a few changes for the worse, as well as a disturbing possible new direction for the software.


The installation in the beta has two major changes -- one long overdue and one that, so far, seems questionable.

On the plus side, no longer needs to be installed twice: Once for the general application and once for each user. Instead, a wizard that runs the first time a user starts the program contains screens for licensing, basic user data, and voluntary registration. This change should remove a major source of confusion, especially among Windows users, who may be unfamiliar with software installation in general and multiple-user operating systems in particular.

Interview: Colm Smyth

NewsForge sat down with StarOffice architect Colm Smyth of Sun Microsystems this week's to talk about the first beta of 2.0.

NewsForge: What's new in version 2.0?

CS: The main focus of our efforts is improved usability and significantly improved interoperability with Microsoft Office formats. This addresses the day-to-day needs of many more end users and makes a real alternative. Base is our new Access equivalent, only it works better and is a real relational database. With 2.0, is using an open standard file format, the XML-based OpenDocument.

NF: Do you decide new features from industry feedback? Specifically, do you have any corporate/industry partners who can give you an idea of the needs of a large corporation so that you can incorporate them?

CS: We use a broad range of sources for feature requirements, ranging from customer interviews and surveys, market and competitive analysis, input from Sun's service and support teams, direct contacts by our engineers with larger customers and global partners (ISVs, ASPs, OEMs), and feedback from local service partners performing customer migration and deployment. This requirements process has been especially broad and intense in planning 3.0; while 2.0 focuses on offering a compelling alternative to Microsoft Office, in 3.0 our focus will extend to several unique and valuable features, especially around collaboration and workgroup productivity.

NF: The upcoming version 2 release must have the development team working overtime. Are there any particularly difficult problems you are facing?

Colm Smyth: Just to set the context, is a huge code-base comprising millions of lines of code developed over a period of more than 15 years. It is a huge challenge to work on a single native code-base of this size because logistically it takes a long time to build and test, which impacts not just on releases but on daily and developer builds. Techniques like agile programming and test-first development simply don't scale this far, and developer support tools that check stack and memory access are unable to cope with the code size and number of API symbols. The code-base is very well layered and somewhat modular, but not componentised.

In this particular release, we set ourselves (and almost entirely completed) a challenging set of goals in terms of new features (in the 100s), along with bug fixes and many minor enhancements numbering in the thousands. We had a large number of projects integrating almost simultaneously. This put a strain on our quality and build processes, as well as requiring developer effort to resolve code and feature merge conflicts.

In the next release, we will avoid these issues in three ways: 1) the plan for the release will specify fewer features, allowing the team to respond to customer requirements during development; 2) the development schedule will use clear time-boxing, with individual projects aiming to complete within a specific part of a development phase; 3) we will improve planning and inter-team communication so that dependencies are detected and resolved earlier.

-- Aditya Nag

By contrast, the removal of the cross-platform installer seems to benefit developers more than end-users. The old installer survives only in the Windows version. On GNU/Linux, it is replaced by a dozen .rpm packages. With a little searching, you can find unofficial .deb packages, but these are often buggy, if less so than the results of using alien to convert the .rpm packages. And, no matter what the package format, installing a dozen packages is far more cumbersome than the common installer. Moreover, unless you start with the core package, the others won't install.


The beta opens on a changed interface. Some of the changes are as simple as a rationalized interface. For example, the Options dialog now refers to applications by name instead of by document type.

However, perhaps the most obvious change in the editing window is in the treatment of toolbars. The Main toolbar, formerly on the left side of the window, has been exorcised entirely. So, too, have the sliding toolbars for lists and tables, and the long-click icon trays. Instead, toolbars pop open as required. Although these toolbars all open in the middle of the window, and often have to be dragged to one side before they can be used, on the whole, this new behavior is a much-needed simplification. It means that new users no longer have to learn non-standard interface elements. It also eliminates the confusion that sometimes resulted when two toolbars were needed -- for example, when the list toolbar was used inside a table. All toolbars, too, can now be torn off to form floating windows or docked as desired.

A large number of interface changes seem due chiefly to efforts to make refugees from Microsoft Office more at home. Specifically, the beta imitates Microsoft Office 2003. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this approach. For one thing, the imitation is two-way nowadays, with Office 2003 transferring styles to a floating palette. For another, more than two-thirds of users are on Windows, so easing the transition for them makes sense.

Still, many of the Office-inspired changes seem so minor as to be pointless. Is there any practical reason, for instance, for changing the name of Autopilots to Wizards, referring to Graphics rather than Pictures, or listing templates in a folder called My Templates? Worse, the move to Office terminology is applied inconsistently. OOo still uses AutoAbstract, for instance, rather than Microsoft's AutoSummarize.

At times, too, the change is for the worse. For example, in version 1.1.4, the Fontwork tool allows graphical text to be manipulated after it was typed. By contrast, in imitation of Microsoft Office 2003, Fontwork in the beta requires users to select a generic design before typing text. Users must then double-click on the generic design to add their own text, and only then customize the design. Although the earlier version could do with a preview, the new one not only suffers the same lack, but is also far less direct and requires more steps.

Another unwelcome change is the removal of page tabs in favor of Page Panes in Draw and Impress. This change reduces free space on the screen without increasing functionality. The Navigator floating window gives the same functionality while being easy to move as needed. In changes like this, the beta comes close to being the clone that hostile reviewers claim it is, reacting to its rival instead of innovating, and being more concerned with imitation than innovation.

General functionality

Changes in general functionality are obvious throughout the beta. The list of recent files, for example, is increased from four to 10 items, while Calc now matches Microsoft Excel in allowing over 64,000 rows in a spreadsheet. Similarly, the handling of tables and several other objects has been tweaked to improve compatibility with Office. Printing no longer by default flags a file as unsaved, and security options have been beefed up. So, too, has the PDF export, which now includes links and bookmarks, and handles fonts more reliably than earlier versions. Completely new features include digital signatures and a movie player that greatly reduces the gap between Microsoft Office's and's abilities to handle both sound and film clips.

Ultimately, the major change may be the adaptation of the OASIS file format, which will one day allow files to be interchanged more freely with other programs. For now, however, the only other application that has announced it will support the format is KOffice. Meanwhile, v1 OOo formats remain fully supported.

Changes in applications

Of the applications, only Math, the formula editor, is unchanged in the beta. Calc benefits from improved datapilot functionality, as well as the ability to import an entire sheet from another file. In Draw and Impress, the toolbar has shifted to the bottom of the window and sprouted small galleries of commonly used shapes, including flow chart elements.

By far the longest list of new features is in Writer, the most commonly used application. They include a word count on selected text, an often-requested option, and hidden character and paragraph styles, which allow for alternative versions of documents to be saved in the same file.

In addition, Writer now offers wizards for setting up databases and mail merges for letters or emails. Both these wizards sometimes make the mistake of assuming too much prior knowledge and could offer more guidance in places, but, by offering a numbered list of steps, both should go a long way towards de-mystifying two processes that often puzzle users of office programs.

No feature has been overhauled as much as tables in Writer. One of the major beneficiaries of the new floating toolbars, tables are also promoted to a top-level menu item. Those two moves make using tables much easier.

Moreover, tables now have several new features. You can now have rows break across a page or column, which improves table layout by eliminating blank space that marks a row too tall for the remainder of a page. You can also create nested tables, a feature especially useful when exporting to HTML, in which tables within tables are a time-honored way of creating complex pages.

The default behavior for tables has also changed for the better. Number recognition, which reformats numbers to give them a bottom right alignment, is turned off by default, removing a major source of frustration for experienced users of Office who are trying to switch to Similarly, the three different ways of having added or deleted rows and columns affect the dimensions of a table -- fixed, fixed proportional, and variable -- have been moved off the tool bar and placed in the Options for Writer. This change eliminates what many users viewed as an unnecessary complication while retaining alternatives for those who want them.


Some features that should have had a makeover in the beta didn't. They include the cross-reference system, which needs to have heading styles available as references by default, and the HTML editor, which needs support for frames and clean HTML output. Also, the entire interface could also be overhauled to give dialog windows a consistent look and feel.

Version 2.0 exhibits a growing dependency on Java. In earlier versions, new users could easily do without Java. By contrast, so many of the new features, including the movie player and wizards, require Java that in version 2.0, it is well on the way to becoming a necessity. The new support for Beanshell as a scripting language reinforces the impression. So does the fact that, in recent developer builds, other data sources such as spreadsheets can no longer be registered -- although probably this is an oversight that will be corrected before the final release. Java apps are hardly known for their speed, and these new features take noticeably longer to open than older ones.

Overall, one gains the impression that users who want a free system are being pressured to choose between their principles and key functionality. Considering that supports a number of free, cross-platform programming languages, including C++ and Python, I can't help wondering whether the growing use of Java is a way Sun Microsystems, the project's main contributor, is trying to promote the use of Java.

Yet, even without Java, is still the most full-featured office application for GNU/Linux, and a major alternative to Microsoft Office on Windows. Except for Mozilla, probably no other program has introduced so many people to open source. Despite my misgivings, the beta promises enough enhancements that I'll be using version 2.0 more and more as it slouches towards final release -- just not with Java.

Bruce Byfield is a freelance course designer and instructor and a technical journalist.

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