Go-OO: the most compatible office suite

Many people have heard of OpenOffice.org, the free open source office suite which in one form or another is the most powerful competitor against Microsoft Office, the default option for most Windows users. There are things I don’t like about OpenOffice.org. For instance it’s a little slow at first start up and the interface looks a little dated alongside the likes of Apple’s iWork and even IBM’s Lotus Symphony, which is itself built on the OpenOffice.org codebase. In use OpenOffice.org is a highly capable office suite and through its support for the Open Document Format boasts compatibility with a wide range of other similar programs. It also supports an extremely wide range of languages and has a growing collection of extensions, including my favourite, which allows upload and import to and from Google Docs and Zoho Office. The big advantage for me though is that unlike MS Office I can run it on all my computers, giving me cross-platform access to my files at no cost. It will even run off a thumb drive, in case the computer in front of me doesn’t have it installed.

Unfortunately, despite these huge advantages, the ubiquity of MS Office means the biggest problem for any office suite contender is file compatibility with MS Office. In this respect OpenOffice.org is good, but a variant known as Go-OO is better. Go-OO is essentially the same as OpenOffice.org, but with added features, including support for Microsoft’s Excel VBA Macros, import of MS Works documents–a notorious dead zone for non-Microsoft software–and for Lotus Word Pro. It is also faster on my Mac than the ‘official’ OpenOffice.org release. A more complete list is available at the Go-OO website. I would be very surprised if this wasn’t the most flexible and compatible office suite available. In terms of document portability it leaves MS Office in the dust.

Many OpenOffice.org users are already using the Go-OO variant without realising it. It is the default office suite on many of the major desktop Linux distributions, including Debian, Ubuntu and openSUSE, and is the basis for NeoOffice on the Mac. If you downloaded OpenOffice.org from the main http://openoffice.org website though, you won’t be able to take advantage of these enhancements. I recommend going over to the Go-OO site and getting the enhanced version from there. It will cost you nothing at all, looks very similar to the original version, but makes the whole experience a lot better.

Free download for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Links for 2 March 2009

I’ve been working offline a lot this week and trying to concentrate on getting a couple of projects underway, but here are a few things that have come over the parapet:

Caroline Smailes is going to be signing her new novel Black Boxes at Waterstones in Chester on Saturday March 7th between 11am and 1pm. Caroline is a terrific writer and her books are well worth getting hold of even if you can’t make it to Chester.

Lots of us are trying to find ways to make our favourite online reading available in other forms and the Tabbloid service from HP aims to help by converting RSS feeds into a pdf. You can add as many feeds as you like (at least I can’t see a restriction) and a nicely formatted pdf ‘magazine’ is emailed to you at intervals you specify. There’s no sign-up and the service is free, but you do need to give your email address, for obvious reasons.

There are developments over at the Shedworking blog, where you can now buy t-shirts, mugs and whathaveyou with designs by Felix Bennett.

And finally, Liberty Hall Writers is advising that we should kill our wordprocessors. True.

Why Apple should be more open with iWork document formats

When Apple introduced iWork a few years back it offered a slick, but limited wordprocessor/text layout tool called Pages and a rather more impressive presentation tool known as Keynote. It was a good start, but it was hardly a challenge to Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. In its iWork ’08 iteration both of these apps were improved significantly and a spreadsheet application was added, making the suite a more viable contender. I was impressed enough to buy a copy, mainly for Keynote, as I had some important presentations coming up. At the 2009 MacWorld in January, Apple introduced iWork ’09, the most impressive iWork yet and, for my limited needs at least, easily a replacement for MS Office (which I haven’t used in anger for years anyway) and OpenOffice.org, which in version 3.0 runs natively and rather nicely on the Mac.

I like iWork ’08 very much. Most of my actual writing needs are met by a combination of Scrivener and Nisus Writer, but if there is layout required, Pages comes into play. For dealing with figures I love the simplicity of Numbers, especially the way it allows you to lay out tables in a human-friendly way. For presentations Keynote is the best in the business. iWork is also good value for money, but there is one thing standing in the way of me adopting it as my primary office suite: proprietary file formats.

I don’t object as such to Apple deciding on its own format. iWork apps operate differently from every other office suite and if Apple thinks it can do better with its own format, well, who are we to judge? The problem is Apple’s format is the default and you can’t change it. It’s possible to save your documents in a few other formats (.rtf, .pdf, .doc etc.), but only by exporting them separately. Worse still, documents saved in iWork ’09 format can’t be read by iWork ’08. Not even in a ‘You know you should really upgrade, but since you haven’t you’ll have to put up with this mess’ kind of way. I don’t believe there is a technical reason for this, but I suppose it doesn’t matter too much because I would never consider saving anything in the iWork formats if I thought for a moment someone else (including future me) might ever need to look at it. It also means a lot of things might have to be saved twice in two different formats, wasting disk space and creating a version control problem. It keeps me from using iWork more often.

This is completely out of step with the way things are going. Even Microsoft, hardly a paragon of virtue in this regard, is adding ODF support in Office 14. OpenOffice.org, which is available for free, can open and save a multitude of different and competing formats. It just isn’t good enough any more. The online iWork.com service looks like a slick way of presenting online documents, but iWork itself has a fraction of a fraction of the office suite market and making life more inconvenient for users than it needs to be is not the way to improve on that position.

It also looks weak. Part of the reason for iWork09’s online features is that they will make it easier to collaborate with people who don’t use iWork09 or, heaven forfend, don’t use Macs. But the point about using a Mac is that Mac users choose to be Mac users. They do so because they find Macs better, easier, more powerful; that’s why they have a reputation for evangelising. So they are not going to buy a Dell running Windows Vista just because iWork doesn’t have online collaborative tools, but they might choose OpenOffice.org to run on their Macs if they can’t easily save their work in ODF or MS Office formats or have to pay for the privilege of working with others. If some kind of half-hearted lock in is all Apple has to persuade its customers to stay it might as well give up on iWork right now and that would be a shame.

So come on Apple, what’s the problem with offering other formats in the Save As menu and at least giving us the option of using an open format? You have nothing to lose and a whole new market to gain.

Make Magazine on Manual Typewriters

Make magazine begins its ‘Lost Knowledge series with an excellent detailed post on manual typewriters. Lost Knowledge goes ‘in search of the technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past’. It also occurs to me, thinking about machines like the typewriter, that part of their legacy is in language and the words they have left behind. Many of us ‘type’ every day, but we’re not really typing any more, at least not in the sense of making a mark on a piece of paper. How will we explain where the word ‘typing’ comes from to children born in 2009? Certainly not without pictures. Will they believe us when we tell them that for a brief period ‘Typist’ was a career choice?

Today, we look at antique manual typewriters. Typewriters are enjoying something of a resurgence these days. They have obvious antique/collectors appeal, they’re amazingly cool machines (as the photos below can attest), and in these increasingly cash-tight times, a manual typewriter requires no electricity, there’s no subscription fee, it’s relatively cheap and easy to keep running, and it doesn’t come with its own bundle of distractions and time-suck black holes like the PC I’m typing this on (while fielding IMs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates). [Link]

That sounds so good I may just have to take a look at the non-functioning Imperial Good Companion Model T I unearthed last autumn and see if I can fix it.

In Praise of Scrivener: a writing tool for writers

By inclination I prefer to use software that runs on several different platforms, but one exception is Scrivener, which runs only on the Mac. Scrivener is essentially a word processor, but it is not your father’s wordprocessor. Scrivener is writing software created with writers in mind. Where wordprocessors such as MS Word or OpenOffice Writer are designed to create documents, Scrivener is intended for managing writing projects. It handles every aspect, from arranging narrative, developing characters, and organising research, to the writing itself. I should say right now that this post is not so much a review as a celebration. This piece of software is truly impressive in the way it addresses very specific writerly needs.

It took me a while to get into using Scrivener. I started using it off and on early in its development, but I began using it seriously about half way through writing my ‘beer book’ some time in early 2007. It transformed the process. Instead of having research scattered all over the place, Scrivener pulled it all together. The Scrivener files (.scriv) are actually folders that contain the whole project. So while a short book might contain a couple of megabytes of rich text, a Scrivener project could be much larger. For the record the Cain’s book .scriv, even though I only moved to Scrivener half way through, is well over 20 40 megabytes: it contains pdfs, images, chunks of text, saved web pages and so on. This kind of conveniently accessible data soup will be familiar to anyone who uses Mac OS X, but the Scrivener interface makes it all very easy.

In the Scrivener window itself the writing and research are contained in two sections.

The writing section is obvious: it’s the area where you keep your writing. Cleverly though, it is unlike the normal wordprocessor model in that it allows you to write in chunks, all of which are available all the time. Rather than a whole bunch of files accessible only through your file manager, all your notes and short chunks of text are available instantly within Scrivener. It is possible to move sections around, merge them, turn them into an outline, move notes to the research section and so on. The flexibility of it is brilliant.

The research section is where you store research materials. This can be anything you can save and view in Mac OS X. From pdfs to Word documents, to saved web pages, you can organise everything easily. I happen to use two screens when I’m doing most of my writing, which allows me to open research materials in a window in the left screen and keep writing in the right (Scrivener) window. Scrivener allows you to split the screen so this will work on a single screen setup, but having two screens really unleashes the power of the research section. For instance, I can open a multiple saved web pages in the web browser Safari in the left screen while running Scrivener for writing in full screen on the right.

Two other features of Scrivener are worth mentioning. Firstly, Scrivener has access to all the text formatting tools in Mac OS X, so you can view your text as you like it. The idea though is that Scrivener is primarily a writing tool, so it is expected that you export your text to a wordprocessor for final formatting. It’s what wordprocessors are for after all.

The second key feature is full screen mode. Lots of ‘no distraction’ text editors are available these days. Write Room is probably best known on the Mac, but even iWork has a full screen mode now. Scrivener’s blows them all away. Not only does it provide more information in full screen mode than the others, but it allows almost limitless formatting. If you want green text on a black background, that’s fine. Maybe you want a single white page, or to be able to see the windows behind ever so faintly. However you like to work, Scrivener seems to cater for it. And because of that, it gets out of the way and lets you write.

I work almost exclusively in Scrivener now, exporting text in .rtf format for processing in final draft. It is primarily aimed at fiction writers and ships with templates for novel and screenplay writing. The flexible research tools also make it well suited to large projects, but my non-fiction projects seem to work just as well, whatever their length. Oh, and did I mention Scrivener has a versioning system built in? If you don’t like your current draft, or part of it, you can go back to an earlier copy with a single click.

Having somewhat obsessive geeky leanings I like trying out new software and I download a lot of new things. Most don’t last and even fewer get my money. If you’re a writer and you use a Mac, Scrivener, at $39.99 is one of the best software bargains out there.

The Scrivener homepage is here. Here’s a video tutorial for Scrivener.


Links for 18 January 2009

The march of the online office suites continues. Laptop Mag reviews the new Zoho Office (Beta) and finds it a strong rival to Google Apps. For added convenience you can even log in using your Gmail or Yahoo Mail account details. I’m increasingly using Google Docs, especially for collaboration, but Zoho’s tools look impressive.

In the ongoing battle to eliminate distractions while working on a web-connected computer, several text editing tools now deliver full screen mode. Web Worker Daily has an overview. My favourite, not mentioned here, is the Mac only Scrivener.

Someone who would surely have mocked anyone who went to such lengths just to be able to concentrate is Dr. Johnson. Language Hat pointed out earlier this week that his dictionary is now online, blogging one definition a day.

More on iwork.com: Online Fonts

octidextro.us has some interesting speculation about whether Apple is planning on making iwork.com deliver fonts universally online. As users of online word processors such as Google Docs will know, the range of fonts available is limited to those likely to be available on any computer (not many). And as any editor of technical documents and books will know, fonts have to passed around with documents if you want the person on the receiving end to see special characters and symbols, or even just an unusual typeface. Siobhan and I had some trouble with this while we were working on Key Ideas. So what happens if you want to use iwork.com to distribute a document with a specialist font? In iwork.com the primary document will be ok, because it seems Apple have decided to make the viewable ‘web version’ something like a PDF. But what about the downloadable wordprocessor-compatible versions? This could be the answer and if it is, it’s a huge breakthrough:

In the excitement about Apple’s beta version of iWork.com – the web-based document sharing/collaborating feature of their iWork suite – people have been asking about fonts. Specifically, what happens when you use a font that that isn’t available on the receiving end of the shared document?

I thought immediately of the news that the nightly builds of Webkit [the underlying software behind Apple’s Safari web browser, Google’s Chrome, and others] support downloadable fonts. All it takes is a couple lines of CSS and, as Jobs would say, “Boom.”  [Link]

Of course this doesn’t just apply to iwork.com. When Safari and Chrome catch up with Webkit a wide range of fonts could also be available in Google Docs and Zoho.

Typewriter Art

Smith

Since discovering monsters in the attic I’ve become increasingly fascinated with typewriters and what you can do with them. You’d think that ‘writing’ and, erm, ‘writing’ would be the extent of it, wouldn’t you? But no, this picture was created using a typewriter by artist Paul  Smith, who died in 2007 at the age of 85.  Created using just a handful of characters–?…@ # $ % ^ &* ( )_ –these are fascinating images, made all the more remarkable when you learn that Smith was born with cerebral palsy and had very restricted movement in his arms. The mental calculations needed to create images like this one must be quite considerable so it comes as no surprise that Smith was also a great chess player.

Here’s a link to the Paul Smith Foundation gallery.

 The excellent Virtual Typewriter Museum has more on Typewriter Art, which it claims goes back as far as 1898. This example is from the 1920s by Pauline L. Hulvey:

hulvey

iWork.com: Apple's Rainmaker?

When Microsoft first began to dabble in online document sharing it took a different approach from existing online office suites offered by the likes of Google and Zoho. Where its competitors allowed editing of documents from within the web browser, Microsoft decided that the ‘cloud’ should become an element of its existing Office productivity suite. Accordingly while documents created in Word 2007 could be viewed online using a web browser, they could only be edited using Word itself. In October 2008 this changed with the announcement that the next version of Office, ‘Office 14’ will include online document editing using a web browser.

Apple seems to be ignoring this development. All you will be able to do using the new online version of its iWork 09 office suite, announced yesterday, will be to make notes on existing documents. Full collaborative document editing will require a copy of iWork 09 and an iWork.com account. For the time being iWork.com is in free public beta, but it will eventually be a pay-for service. What made this announcement stand out in an otherwise mundane keynote at the Macworld conference, is that it indicates Apple’s direction for the next few years.

For the record, I think iWork is in many ways a fine suite of software. The wordprocessor/DTP element, Pages, is sleek and easy to use, while Keynote makes presentations a lot easier to put together than any other similar package I’ve used. Keynote certainly seems to suit more discursive presentations than business-leaning presentation software such as Powerpoint. I also prefer Numbers over more traditional spreadsheets, though I don’t use spreadsheets all that often. What is happening with iWork 09 however is indicative of the two dominant approaches in the battle to control the Web.

On the one hand are Google, which bought up Writely and turned its online wordprocessor into Google Docs, and Zoho, which provides a remarkably diverse set of online productivity applications. These companies, among others, see a cross-platform future in which the web browser is the place where things get done. The addition of Gears, which allows offline editing of web-based content, and the development of ‘Web App’ mini browsers such as Fluid, degrade the barrier between desktop and web. Google’s Chrome web browser also allows users to create a desktop ‘application’ out of any website. Google hopes to encourage them to do so with its own online office suite.

On the other hand are Apple and Microsoft, both of which depend on the success of their own particular platform. Despite its upcoming move to the browser some components in Microsoft’s Office Live service still require Internet Explorer 6 or 7 (and specifically Active X), which don’t run anywhere but on Windows. Apple’s MobileMe services (online calendaring, email etc.) work in several different browsers, but only on the Mac or on Windows. Forget using Firefox to check your MobileMe calendar on your shiny new Linux Netbook in other words. Edit: Actually, while MobileMe didn’t work in Linux at first, and I couldn’t get it to work yesterday before I wrote this, it is now working for me in Firefox on Linux. If you’re having trouble, clear out the caches and cookies and whatnot. You still have to click through an ‘unsupported browser’ message though, and it’s possible things are not working as they should (but thanks to Terry in the comments for prompting me to try again).

Clearly there are good reasons for Microsoft and Apple to tie their online services to their own products. Microsoft depends heavily on income from Office, while Apple has to sell Macs and keep people using them. But I can’t help thinking that while the ‘cloud’ services they offer might well turn out to benefit other areas of their business for the time being, this isn’t the best way to make customers hang around in the long term. For instance I might well sign up and pay for Apple’s iWork on the web if it is competitive with Google Docs, but not if I have to buy iWork 09 as well. The same goes for MS Office and its ‘Live’ counterpart if it won’t work properly anywhere but Windows.

People want to be free to work when and where they like and their computing environment is increasingly a cross-platform one. My guess is that in the long term Apple will have to follow Microsoft and break the link between its desktop office suite and the iWork.com services. These attempts to lock customers in to buying a particular product in order to use a service available elsewhere for free or at low cost are very similar to the music industry’s insistence on downloaded music being crippled with DRM. And we know how well that worked out, don’t we?