Nine Improvements Overdue in LibreOffice Writer

The latest version adds some welcome new features, but LibreOffice Writer has some legacy issues that should have been addressed years ago.


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

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LibreOffice 4.0 is still a few days from release. However, after playing around with the Writer app in latest release candidate, I can see already that some longstanding problems remain uncorrected.

Don't get me wrong—I have nothing but respect for the work that LibreOffice has done in the last twenty-eight months. Although at first I doubted that it could ever be more than a minor fork, LibreOffice has done more during its brief existence to improve the code it inherited from OpenOffice.org than OpenOffice.org managed in a decade.

The upcoming release continues that tradition, with many welcome features. In Writer, the improvements include comments attached a text range, easier setup of different headers and footers on the first page of a document, and improved import of ink annotations and mathematical expressions, as well as updated interfaces for some (but not all) dialogs.

What I am talking about are more basic improvements—some of which LibreOffice not only inherited from OpenOffice.org, but which OpenOffice inherited from StarOffice, the proprietary office suite it was based on. In other words, some of these improvements have been waiting to be made for almost fourteen years.

other priorities and a lack of coders probably explain some of these delays. Still, many of these improvements are starting to seem long overdue.

1. Constant Objects in Page Styles

More than any other feature, page styles help to make Writer not only a word processor, but an intermediate desktop publisher. In fact, as I have argued at length, Writer can be a free replacement for FrameMaker, an industry standard for text layout.

However, one major restriction remains: objects cannot be placed in the main body of a page style, which would allow them to appear each time that the style is used. That means, for instance, that you can't start each page that uses the style with a logo, or place a watermark on a page unless you do it manually for each page. The closest you can come is to place the object in a header or footer, which severely limits positioning. Correcting this limitation would go a long way toward improving Writer's layout capabilities.

2. Table Styles

Right now, Writer includes paragraph, character, page, frame and list styles. By contrast, the closest that tables have to styles is the Autoformat tool, which is so awkward to use that most users tend to ignore it. Instead, they adjust each table separately, using the Table Properties dialog. Most are surprised to learn that they can add their own layouts to Autoformat.

Just as the manual paragraphs and character formatting windows are the basis for styles, so Table Properties and several of the other items in the Tables top level menu could be the basis for table styles. Placed with the other five types of styles in the Styles and Formatting floating window, they would make tables easier to manage and make the underlying logic of Writer more consistent.

3. Graphical Resources

By default, Writer comes with a number of graphical resources. From Tools -> Galleries, you can find a number of backgrounds, buttons and bullets. Some of the bullets are also available from Format -> Bullets and Numbering -> Graphics.

All these resources are—how shall I put it? Soooo 1995. I doubt that anyone would use them unless deliberately creating a document with a retro look. Most people probably wouldn't care if they were deleted altogether. Or maybe they could be replaced with designs that someone today might actually use?

4. Enhanced Find Options

Experienced users of Writer know that the Navigator is the most efficient tool for finding their way around a document. However, users familiar with other word processors are more likely to turn to the Find tool. Then—after discovering that that Find has been reduced to a single field at the bottom of the editing window—to the Find and Replace tool, which still retains the advanced search tools that OpenOffice.org originally had.

Press the More button, and you can see that one option is Search for Styles. However, this option is limited to searching for paragraph styles. But you might want to search for the other types of styles as well, not just Attributes and Formats, especially when you are designing a document. Also, some searches might be quicker if you could search for the name that LibreOffice uses internally for an object—for instance, 2002 Table—rather than the Table Contents paragraph style.

Or, possibly, they could replace Find and Replace with the Navigator, which already has this capacity. At the very least, a link to open the Navigator could be added to the Find and Replace dialog. After all, the Navigator and the dialog both serve the same purpose.

5. Color Support

It's 2013, but LibreOffice still comes with only a hundred pre-defined colors. You can add colors if you want them—say, to match the colors on a company's logo—but the restriction seems a remnant of the mid-1990s, when memory was more restricted than today and every byte counted.

The restriction doesn't limit the display of imported images, but it does mean that, in practice, users tend to use only the pre-defined colors when adding a background color to a frame or a table. Worst of all, when they try to use any of the drawing tools, it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration, thanks to the limit on easily available colors.

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Tags: open source, OpenOffice, word processing, LibreOffice, Office productivity

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