The Future Facelift of OpenOffice.org: Page 2

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But, leaving the question of patents aside, a switch to ribbons would evoke mixed reactions. A few people seem to like ribbons, and you could argue that OpenOffice.org would be more likely to attract MS Office users if it had them. But, by my unscientific count, Fluent has three people who hate it for every one who likes it, and OpenOffice.org would run the risk of being dismissed as a clone if it were to use ribbons -- a label that the project has understandably been at some pains to avoid. In fact, Fluent is so unwelcome that there is even a commercial software product designed to give MS Office users classic menus again.

Nor, as the Renaissance FAQ points out, is there any indication that ribbons have any advantage over standard menus and toolbars. My guess is that ribbons are not innovative enough to have any advantage, because all they do is combine menus and toolbars in a different way.

Just as important, ribbons will be undesirable if Renaissance sticks to its concern about making features accessible. One of the main results of ribbons is that some broken parts of MS Office such as master documents are hidden. Users also complain about having trouble locating features that are included in Fluent, although that may be due more to unfamiliarity than any design flaw.

The possibility of dumbing down

Another disturbing possibility is that Renaissance will follow the lead of network applications, and dumb down OpenOffice.org. Judging from Renaissance's wiki, the possibility of removing features seems remote, but Renaissance could dumb down OpenOffice another way by reducing the emphasis on styles.

As you may know, styles are a way of setting format once, then applying it in a number of different locations with a few mouse-clicks. Although the first application of a format takes time with styles, in subsequent applications styles are much faster than manually applying formats in each individual instances -- especially when combined with reusable templates.

Most office suites use character and paragraph styles. However, OpenOffice.org uses them far more extensively. In the Writer word processor, character and paragraph styles are joined by page, frame, and list styles. Other applications also use them more extensively than their equivalents in other office suites do -- so much so that many tasks either can't be done or take more time if you do not use styles. Styles are actually what makes OpenOffice.org not just a word processor, but also a surprisingly flexible desktop publishing program as well.

But, despite their convenience, styles are an intermediate or expert users' feature. Unlike manual formatting, they take time to learn how to use, which is probably why most network applications either de-emphasize them or do not use them at all.

Undoubtedly, basic users would view the reduction of OpenOffice.org's emphasis on styles as a much-needed simplification. More advanced users, though, would consider such a change a crippling reduction in functionality. Perhaps more could be done to make manual formatting easier in OpenOffice.org, but those of us who rely on styles can only hope that Renaissance's usability testing involves different levels of users, and not just basic ones.

Conclusion

What directions Renaissance will take is still uncertain. Even if the initial timeline for the first draft interface proves realistic, the revamped interface is probably two or three years from completion.

All the same, it is not too early to start watching and supporting the project. You could start by answering Renaissance's initial survey, and continue by providing input whenever the opportunity arises.

Despite the kludgy interface, OpenOffice.org remains the premier office application in free and open source software. That makes Renaissance an influential project, and well-worth the time to help ensure that it's done properly. Otherwise, we run the risk of Renaissance being still born.


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Tags: open source, services, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Open Office


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