OpenOffice 3.3 Beta: The Shape of Things to Come?

Wednesday Aug 11th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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OpenOffice needs enough interface improvements and feature enhancements to keep Oracle busy for some time to come.

OpenOffice.org 3.3 will be the third release since Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems in January 2010. The first two, releases 3.2 and 3.21 were both relatively minor, and, from the just-released beta, 3.3 looks like more of the same.

The motto for the 3.3 release is "Fit and Trim." The phrase is vague, but suggests a concern with interface improvements. This impression is reinforced by the first item on the features list, which is "First Achievements of the Renaissance Project," an OpenOffice.org sub-project focused on improving the interface. Further confirmation, if any is needed, is provided by the fact that only a few new features are scheduled and the rest are enhancements of existing features.

The 3.3 release is available on the OpenOffice.org site in 323 and 64 bit .RPM and .DEB packages, as well as source tarballs. Regardless of your choice of formats, the release installs into a separate sub-directory of /opt, allowing it to co-exist with other OpenOffice.org releases. To start the release, click /opt/ooo-dev3/program/soffice. The build is relatively stable, and documents created in it can be opened in earlier versions of OpenOffice.org, but you should probably use 3.3 sparingly in case of problems.

New Features and Changes

Whether a 3.3 feature is new to you depends on whether your Linux distribution builds its OpenOffice.org packages from code released by the project itself or by Go-OO, the Novell-centered project which releases its own version of the code. For example, the ability to color sheet tabs in Calc is new in 3.3 from OpenOffice.org, but is already present in 3.2.1 from Go-OO.

Completely new features are few and far between in the 3.3 release. Across all the programs, File -> Properties now has an extra tab for security options. On this tab, you can set a password to open an encrypted file or to share it. On the tab, you can also choose to make a shared file read-only, and to record any changes made to it.

Another new feature across the board is that you can now embed standard fonts in any sub-class of PDF, and not just PDF/A-1a. For some reason, however, this change is accompanied by a loss of the ability to create a hybrid PDF that includes an Open Document Format version of the file within a PDF so that it can be edited more easily.

Hybrid PDFs were promoted by Sun Microsystems to enhance the performance of the Sun PDF Import Extension, which allows PDF files to be edited in Draw. Considering that hybrids are much larger than standard PDFs, since they contain two versions of the file, an argument could be made for deprecating them, but whether Oracle will be making this argument, or will correct the omission in the final release is currently anybody's guess.

Within individual OpenOffice.org programs, new features are rare. Writer now includes an option when you save with a password to allow a file to be open read-only unless the password is entered. However, for once, it has few enhancements in Calc, which now supports 1,048,576 rows as part of its arms race with Microsoft Excel -- never mind that any sensible user would have switched to a database at less than one percent of that total, if only for the sake of performance. In addition, you can click on a sheet tab's context menu in Calc to set an event to run each time than you click the tab.

Other OpenOffice.org programs, such as Draw, Impress, Math, and Base, have no new features, in keeping with the theme of the 3.3 release.

Interface Changes and Enhancements

Innovations in the 3.3 release are mostly in the form of interface changes and enhancements of existing features.

Some interface changes are simplifications, such as the decision to use a single placeholder for all objects on Impress slides, instead of a separate one for each. Others are minor modifications of dialog wording. Still others are duplications of existing features, such as the placement of the Thesaurus in the context menu for Writer, or the addition of a basic Find menu to the collection of toolbars that you can add to the editing window.

Perhaps the most obvious interface change is in the Print dialogue. So far as I can see, no features have been added, but the dialog has shifted from combo boxes and sub-windows for options to a tabbed window in which everything is both more accessible and easier to find. The improvement is especially obvious on the General tab, where all available printers are visible at a glance, with details for the currently selected printer available in an expandable tree view at the bottom of the list. The new Printer dialog also has a preview on the left, although it is so small that no attempt has been made to eliminate the Printer Preview from the menu.

Similarly, the most noticeable enhancement is in the cross-program Chart sub-system. In 3.3, the default chart size is larger, and so is the default font -- it is now 10 points instead of 8, which for many users should be all the difference between squinting and readily easily. Lines on charts are also thinner, and details like the floor shading have been enhanced, resulting in a more modern business look for charts in general.

If you need to, you can also add drawing objects directly to a chart. This enhancement eliminates the need to group the object with the chart so that you can move them both together, a task that can sometimes be finicky.

In individual programs, the majority of enhancements are found -- as usual -- in Writer, the most heavily used OpenOffice.org program. They include the ability to compare tables as tables when you compare documents.

However, most of the Writer enhancements are concerned with language. Using the Tools -> Language -> For Selection sub-menu, you can now automatically reset the default dictionary.

Even more importantly, after eight years of being able to change selected text only to upper or lower case, the Change Case feature in the Format menu now includes additional options. In the 3.3 beta, in addition to switching between upper and low case, you can also choose sentence case (capitalizing the first word after each period), capitalize every word, or toggle case. As an interface improvement, each option is suitably illustrated in the sub-menu.

What We Can Expect

Those expecting major changes are likely to be disappointed with the 3.3 release. New features and enhancements are few, and, although the interface changes seem universally for the better, their style has yet to transform every dialog -- and, anyway, Linux users are more likely to use OpenOffice.org for its features than its interface. Still, from the examples in 3.3, by the time Project Renaissance is finished, fewer people will be able to convincingly argue that OpenOffice.org appears ugly or obsolete.

What is less clear is whether 3.3 and the previous two releases are typical enough that we can know that they are what we can expect from an Oracle-controlled OpenOffice.org. On the one hand, any number of major changes would improve the office suite -- everything from table styles to the ability to associate an object and its position with a page style -- and such features should not be forgotten.

On the other hand, there are enough interface improvements and feature enhancements needed that OpenOffice.org could justifiably focus on them for several releases to come. And, while it seems that is what Oracle plans on doing, perhaps it is still a little early to know if that is how the company plans to deploy its new acquisition.

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