April 4, 2008

Test-driving OpenOffice.org 3.0

Author: Bruce Byfield

With OpenOffice.org 2.4 just released, OpenOffice.org 3.0 (OOo3) has already passed its feature freeze, and is scheduled for release in September. Based on recent development builds, what can you expect? In the Base, Draw, and Math applications, very little change, at least so far. But in the core programs of Writer, Impress, and Calc, some long-awaited new features are arriving. Combined with the improvements in the charting system that are the major feature of the 2.4 release, these new features promise to increase both usability and functionality, although some of the changes do not go far enough.

You can download packages for OOo3 development builds from the /developer/DEV300_m3 directories of the project's mirror sites, or from Pavel Janik's site. The packages can co-exist alongside other OOo installations, but you should not try to exchange files between the development build and existing versions, because OOo3 uses version 1.2 of the Open Document Format, which existing versions cannot read. While recent builds are remarkably stable, you probably shouldn't count on later ones being equally reliable.

The changes

Instead of opening on a blank gray editing window like earlier versions, OOo3 opens on a selection of icons for starting the basic applications -- a much more useful default for beginners, who might not think to open the File menu. Another new feature lets you password-protect your changes for collaborative editing, and you can now use a scanner from Impress and Draw. Designers in particular can also look forward to support for PostScript-based OpenType fonts and an item in the Insert menu for inserting non-breaking spaces and hyphens, in case they have trouble remembering the keyboard shortcuts.

The Write word processor benefits from several small but significant changes. Those whose documents contain paragraphs in multiple languages and who have started a spell-check only to find the program skipping whole paragraphs can now visit the Language sub-menu to change language settings on the fly.

Another major change is the expansion of cross-references. Instead of laboriously highlighting a reference and naming it, you can now add cross-references by selecting heading styles, bookmarks, or number paragraphs. This change brings Writer into line with other word processors by allowing you to easily use precisely the elements you are most likely to cross-reference. Disappointingly, though, building a cross-reference continues to be unnecessarily laborious, with no capacity for saving reference patterns (such as "For more information, see" to make the process easier.

But the most important change in Writer is the addition of View -> Zoom -> Columns. This new view allows you to display as many pages as you want side by side. It is particularly useful if you check the Book Mode box, so that you can display a document the way it would appear in a book, with the first page alone on the right, and subsequent two-page spreads appearing together. Until now, the only way to see a two-page spread was by selecting File -> Page Preview, which gave you a view that both required fiddling and was uneditable. For designers, Book Mode means that document design suddenly has fewer distractions and is therefore much easier.

The Calc spreadsheet also has several changes, although they tend to be minor compared to those in Writer. Calc's maximum number of columns has increased from 256 to 1,024, giving it parity with Microsoft Excel, but how useful this feature is to average users is debatable, especially since, if you have that many columns, you should almost certainly be switching from a spreadsheet to a database.

Advanced Calc users may notice a redesigned Solver. In addition to solving a formula for a minimum or maximum value, the new Solver also allows you to solve for an absolute value. More importantly, you now enter further limiting conditions within the main dialog window instead of opening an additional dialog that obscures the conditions you already entered.

In addition, Calc's highlighter is now translucent instead of solid black. This small change means that the act of selecting a file no longer displays the characters in it in hard-to-see white on black while obscuring the rest of the formatting. Remembering your place is so much easier with this change that I wish that other applications would do highlighting the same way.

But probably the biggest single change in any application so far is the introduction of tables to the Impress slide show application. The lack of tables has always been one of the ways that Impress fell short of Microsoft PowerPoint, and the workaround of drawing individual boxes for table cells is both time-consuming and clumsy. The new tables include a floating toolbar much like the one used for tables in Writer, and a new Table Design tray in the Task pane that includes several dozen preset styles.

Somewhat annoyingly, the default style is for colored cells, which means that slide show designers cannot quickly copy their habits when working in HTML and use tables for complex formatting. Moreover, the fact that you cannot nest tables further frustrates such efforts. Still, with OOo's drawing tools -- especially text frames -- you may have less need of such kludges, and the addition of tables at all is a major enhancement.

Still coming

These are not the only features scheduled for OOo3. For Mac users, the big news is that OOo3 will run natively for them, instead of under X Windows. Users who have to exchange files with users of the latest version of Microsoft Office may appreciate the coming translation filters for the new OOXML format, although you can already open and read simple documents in the format in OOO2.3.

Originally, too, OOo3 was supposed to be bundled with Mozilla Thunderbird to satisfy the frequent demands for an Outlook clone to go with the office programs. However, so far, the development builds give no indication of that change, nor of the rumored ability to edit PDF documents.

Judging OOo3 from the current build is probably rash. But, so far, OOo3 looks like less of a radical change than OOo2, which featured a major interface redesign, as well as dozens of features. Perhaps that is just as well. A new interface might have followed Microsoft Office's example and replaced tool bars and menus with ribbons, a change that would likely prove unpopular.

As for other features -- well, many builds are still to come between the current ones and the final release. But, even if more features are not forthcoming, those that are implemented are already enough to make OOo3 thoroughly welcome.


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