Monday, 29 April 2013

LibreOffice Advancing, and the Virtues of Gratitude and Patience

I am too well-schooled in politeness to look gift horses in the mouth. Thank my parents for that. As a result, I am truly and humbly grateful for the gifts that the Free Software Movement has given me. For example, a couple of years back, my wife and I tried to set up a new high school. The computers we bought for the computer lab came with Windows XP, of doubtful legality, and no antivirus. I didn't want to pirate either the operating system or the antivirus program and I certainly couldn't afford to purchase them. A simple download of the Linux operating system (specifically, a version called Ubuntu) solved the problem. The students had no trouble adapting to a slightly different user interface and the OpenOffice suite provided a capable word processor and spreadsheet. That's not to say that it was a perfect solution at first, but the flaws that made two computers misbehave were fixed in the next Ubuntu update which arrived, as always, six months later.

I'm still using Ubuntu, but OpenOffice has gone through a complex split into different versions. The one that I'm using, the most quickly developing of them, is called LibreOffice. I've written books with it, so I know that it handles large files easily. I developed enough confidence in it to try to write a much more complex document: a master document that imports 59 separate chapters, includes a table of contents, four levels of headings, illustrations, in-text tables, 159 automatically numbered poems, numbered lists, a single sequence of footnotes for the whole book, and some word art.  Here is a screen shot of the project.

LibreOffice handled most of the tasks I set it like a champ, but three flaws became apparent.
  1. One flaw was annoying, but I could live with it: the level 3 headings in one particular chapter file displayed in the master document as level 2 headings. Why? I don't know.
  2. One flaw was infuriating: When I loaded the master document, separate numbered lists would often decide that they were a single numbered list. Instead of reading 1, 2, 3, and then following that with another 1, 2, 3, I would see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and have to fix this by hand. Over and over, every time I started editing.
  3. A last flaw was not really the fault of LibreOffice nor of Ubuntu but of how the two projects interact. LibreOffice usually presented its menu at the top of a window, in a very Microsofty way. Ubuntu switched to a Mac-style menu at the top of the screen. There was a way to make LibreOffice adopt the Ubuntu standard menubar, but there was a catch. If I loaded the master document and edited a few of its component files, the connection between the menu and the program would break. That is, I could select a menu item, but nothing would happen. I had to revert to the top-of-window menus to get anything done.
Some people at this point would say that these problems were visited on me because I had sinned against proprietary software. "You get what you pay for!" they would cry. "Pay nothing and you get nothing worthwhile in return."

This is where the mention of gift horses comes into play, not to mention patience.

On the 27th of this month, the new update for Ubuntu came out, version 13.04. (That means the April 2013 release; the next, in October, will be 13.10). With this new version came a new version of LibreOffice, version 4.0. People, whether they know it or not, have been working hard on my behalf. The problem with the heading levels is gone. The problem with the numbered lists is gone. (I couldn't believe it! Joy, joy, joy). The problem with the menubar may well be gone: LibreOffice now has code to set the menu on Ubuntu in the right place, and I haven't had any problem with its usability so far.

That's not to say that this version of LibreOffice is perfect, but only that those flaws have been fixed. There's still a cosmetic problem with the menus, in that the highlight that should follow my pointer down a menu is now missing. I've checked: that bug has been filed and placed on a high priority for fixing in the next release, a couple of months down the line. Until then, the program is still working fine.

I've been reluctant to write this posting in case it dissuades people from trying either Ubuntu or LibreOffice. It shouldn't. Both are projects in active development and are advancing in both stability and features. There is absolutely no penalty for trying either or both, and there is the possibility that one or both will suit your needs, so try them.

LibreOffice is available for use on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Versions for Android and iOS are in development.

Here's an amusing video where someone sat his mother down to try Ubuntu for the first time. Notice that she's running it from a USB memory stick.

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