2.0 Has Been Released

The latest version of this popular open source office suite has been released on Thursday to very good reviews. This piece of news has made the rounds already but not in the Web design and development blogs and forums where I hang out. It’s too bad because those people would probably benefit in trying it out.

Not only has this news been pretty much ignored in those circles but many seem to have completely misinformed opinions about the actual quality of the software. In a recent thread in one newsgroup I infrequently participate in, someone commented that “you get what you pay for” when a poster asked a question about a “problem” he had that was easily fixable with a preference setting modification. That actual issue is irrelevant here but this misguided attitude toward and Open Source software in general seems to be widespread.

The thread in question was started following the announcement of the US State of Massachusetts’s decision to formalize the adoption of the newly create OpenDocument file format for office applications and to the deployment of to all the state’s office workers. Strangely, that adoption of the OpenDocument format was pretty much absent from the aforementioned discussion and it is probably the most significant part of Massachusetts’s decision. More on this later.

I myself have been using 2.0 for several months and I find it to be a polished and powerful office suite whose applications are replacing their MS Office counterparts for me. For example, all of my blog posts are written with it before I take them on line and all the tutorials and articles I write for are also done in OOo Writer.

There are several reasons I’m using more and more and none have to do with my being anti Microsoft or being cheap (two of the “reasons” put forward by some who cannot fathom that OOo may be quality software since it’s free). I have a perfectly working and fully licensed version of Office XP Professional installed on my computer but I just prefer using Writer over Word. Some specific examples of things I prefer in Writer include how it handles styles and formatting. I have the Styles And Formatting panel docked to the side at all times. Sure beats having to open a modal dialog in Word 2000 or having to constantly reopen the Task Pane and choosing the Styles And Formatting window in Word XP. Furthermore, I prefer how Writer organizes Styles in the Styles And Formatting panel.

Another feature that Writer has that has no Word equivalent is the Navigator. It’s incredibly useful to visualize and re-organize the document’s structure or to find specific parts of a long document based on either the headings, graphics, hyperlinks or whatever. A third advantage all’s applications share is the ability to export to PDF directly. This will apparently be added to MS Office 12 but isn’t present in my copy of Office XP at home or the copy of Office 2000 I use at work.

Regardless of 2,0’s inherent qualities, its support of OpenDocument as its native file format is probably one of the most compelling reasons for adopting it as I hinted above. The state of Massachusetts’s decision to adopt the OpenDocument format was motivated by the state’s need to make sure that documents created today would be accessible and usable decades from now. Government have to plan and think of these things in the very long term and although individual users’ needs may be different from governments, OpenDocument’s forward compatibility is a compelling reason for using software that support it for individual users as well.

If you’re anything like me, you probably have a number of files laying around on CD’s diskettes or ZIP disks that you cannot open anymore because the software that created them is too old and does not work on modern OSes like Windows XP or Mac OS X. Using OpenDocument can prevent that because it is an open file format whose specifications are public and unattached to any proprietary implementations.

The bottom line is that, if you haven’t done so yet, you should give 2.0 a try and see if it satisfies your needs. As an office suite it just rocks and its use of the OpenDocument file format makes it an even more compelling choice if you want to still have access to your files in the future.

Enabling Technologies

Enabling Technology can often be an empty buzzword that encapsulates other just as empty buzzwords that only an old school marketer could love. On the other hand, it can also describe useful technologies that truly empower users and let them accomplish new tasks they couldn’t do before or help then do things easier, faster and with more positive results than before. The reason I’m bringing this up now is that I discovered such enabling software last week that really got me excited.

Recently, I had been looking for a way to implement photo galleries with easy navigation and thumbnails both for this site and a new client site I’ll start designing soon for a local artist-painter. I’ve been looking at many photographers and painters’ sites to see how they were doing it and I was baffled to discover that many of those sites had very poor implementations of this kind of feature which is very important for that type of site. There had to be a better way.

My first inclination was to build some kind of gallery feature in Dreamweaver myself using DHTML. I have never been too keen on using Flash probably in large part because my Flash skills are not very extensive. I learned Flash 3 very well at the time but haven’t “updated” my Flash skills much as the app has evolved into the deep and complex application it has become today. I have preferred to improve my knowledge of other Web design and development related subjects instead of Flash.

In any case, last week I stumbled onto a newsgroup posting that recommended SlideShowPro for building this kind of functionality and after trying it for a few minutes that’s when the term “enabling technology” popped into my head. Talk about a powerful piece of software for a very small price. I got so excited about it that I wanted to share it here.

SlideShowPro is a very full featured Flash component that does a lot more than its name implies and all that for a measly $ 20. Most of its competitors cost 3 to 4 times as much and do not offer the sophisticated navigational and organisational features that SlideShowPro offers. It may not automate the creation of the XML file it uses to load pictures but third party developers have create some very sophisticated admin web apps in PHP ($5.00) and ColdFusion (free) that seem to do the job really well. I’ll be trying the ColdFusion one soon when I implement a gallery of my own photographs on this site. The new section will be called pixel gallery and I should have it up within a week or two. More on that and other great software I’ve discovered later…