Touted as a compelling and arguably superior alternative to Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org begs the question: is it as good as it's cracked up to be? I am heading canary-like to mine the depths of this free suite alternative, testing its limits by using it to complete common and advanced business tasks. If I report back to you in short, desperate breaths that the suite is impossibly difficult to use, you will know better than to send in more miners. But if I come out of this experiment alive and well, you may just have to ask yourself, as I asked myself, "Why not give it a try?" (See Trouble Me.)
If you have not taken so much as a glance at OpenOffice.org nor read the first two articles in this series, you might want to back up for a moment to establish your context here. Download and take a quick look at this open source software (www.openoffice.org) or, in the interest of time, read OpenOffice.org: One Suite Alternative and First Look at OpenOffice.org Writer. (See novell.com/connectionmagazine/2006/10/tech_talk_3.html and novell.com/connectionmagazine/2006/11/tech_talk_4.html, respectively.) The first article will fill you in on why you should care and continue to read about OpenOffice.org, and the second article will introduce its word processing component, OpenOffice.org Writer (OO Writer).
For this article, the third in this series, I put OO Writer to the test, executing the first of several planned tasks. This first task required that I format, export as .pdf, and create a template for my community newsletter. If you are not much of a detail person and are willing to take my word for it, all you need to know is that this experiment went well: I found that OO Writer had all of the capabilities I needed to create the two-page, full-color newsletter with only one visit to the suite's Help. (See Figure 1.) To protect the innocent, the homeowners' association, resident, street and community names have been changed. For the sake of this discussion, I'll call the newsletter The ABC View.)
> The Task at Hand
My small community of approximately 40 homes is run by a six-member Board of Directors, comprised of residents who voluntarily serve after the neighborhood grants their vote of approval. In the past, the newsletter has befallen the Board secretary; however, this year the secretary asked if the vice president (that would be me) could take over the newsletter, pointing out that I had "few" (he meant "no") responsibilities. I was shamed into agreeing.
The secretary handed over hard-copy samples of newsletters past and washed his hands clean of the job. The first few issues were simple two-column, two-page, black-and-white distributions with a charming tone but a less-than-polished appearance. In an attempt to rectify the low-budget look, last year's Board purchased publishing software, which the president used to improve the newsletter format.
The secretary passed along this publishing software but admitted that it had been too complicated for him to use. Not good. As I have mentioned in previous articles, I loathe learning new software. I was particularly opposed to the idea of learning "complicated" software to create only three newsletters for which I would be responsible during my one-year term. I also did not believe that next year's volunteer would be thrilled with the prospect.
I decided that my legacy to the Board would be to create a template for The ABC View using OO Writer. The template would simplify the newsletter-creation process, which henceforth and forever will require nothing more than plugging in new words. OO Writer is an excellent choice for this association because the software is free and, more important, familiar. You don't have to "learn" OO Writer. If you've ever used one of its proprietary competitors, such as MS Word, you'll feel comfortable using it in your first session and will feel confident using it within a few sessions.
To assure myself that OO Writer would be easily used by the next poor sap stuck with The ABC View, I swore from the outset that I would approach the project like Anyuser. Anyuser would cast him- or herself into a burning pyre before scouring the Web in search of documentation that he or she will never use. Therefore, as the self-assigned (and self-defined) Anyuser, I decided I must create the newsletter and its template using nothing more than Help available from the program itself, which I would consult only in cases of dire emergency.
> The Set Up
While there are probably many fancy techniques I could have used to create this newsletter, I like to keep things simple, so I created it using tables. For example, for the first page of The ABC View, I created three tables: one for the title, one for the description and one for the actual newsletter.
Creating tables in OO Writer is a familiar process and requires no training or guess work. In fact, if you have ever created a table using MS Word, you can create a table as quickly and easily using OO Writer.
To create a table using OO Writer, from the Table pull-down menu simply click Insert and then Table. When you do, a dialog box appears that enables you to name the table, specify the number of rows and columns, and select a few options, such as, Header and Border options. You may also click the AutoFormat button to choose from nearly 20 preformatted tables. (You should check these out.) If you don't change a thing in this dialog box but simply click OK, OO Writer by default creates a two-column, two-row table with a single-line border.
Alternately, you can click Table from the Insert pull-down menu. An even simpler way to create a table is by just clicking the Table button on the Standard toolbar and dragging the drop-down graphic to be the size you want your table to be. It then just creates the table at the cursor location with the default name. (See Figure 2.)
For the title table, I created a two-column, one-row table with no border. Specifying "no border" was easy: I simply clicked to deselect the Border option from the Table dialog box.
To brighten up the page, I filled the first column with a background color. You can select a background color in two ways; the first method is to click the icon that looks like a tipping paint can from the pop-up table menu that appears every time your cursor is inside a table in an OO Writer document. The second method is to choose Table Properties from the Table pull-down menu and click the Background tab from the Table Format dialog box. (See Figure 3.)
These two methods don't produce identical results. The first method (using the pop-up table menu) fills the center of the cell, leaving a small white border. The second method (using the Background tab from Table Format dialog box) fills the entire cell. As you can guess by looking at Figure 1, I used the second method.
> Characters and Pictures
Next, I needed a spiffy-looking font for the newsletter's title. I clicked the Font tab from the dialog box that appears when you select Character from the Format pull-down menu and scrolled through the list of well over 150 fonts. I chose Bookman Old Style in 32 point font for "The" and Monotype Corsiva in 48 point font for "ABC VIEW." As you can see, I also changed the color of the font to white using the Font Effects tab in the Format|Character dialog box.
In the second column, I imported a picture my husband had taken of the mountain that characterizes the view from our community. Doing so was simple and intuitive (after 12 years' experience using OO Writer's primaryproprietary competitor, MS Word). To import the picture, I selected Picture>From File from the Insert pull-down menu. When the picture popped into view, it was already selected (indicated by green boxes on its corners and in the middle of all its sides), which enabled me to size the picture in the way to which I, like most users, am accustomed. I could also easily move the picture by clicking anywhere in its middle to get the cross-hairs cursor.
> Fat Lines and Justification
To house the description of the newsletter, I created a one-row, three column table with a fat border. To create the border, you have two options: click the Line Style icon in the Table pop-up menu or go to the Borders tab in the Table Format dialog box. I frankly don't remember which of these two options I used but do recall selecting the 2.5 point line style to outline this table. I used the Haettenschweiler font in 11 point for the newsletter description, edition number and date, which I left-aligned, centered and right-aligned, respectively.
> The Big Kahuna
For the rest of this first page, I created a one-row, five-column table and sized the columns like this: the first column is 1.5 inches, because it serves only to list the contents of the newsletter and identify members of the Board and of the Architectural Committee for the Community (ACC). The second and fourth columns serve only as visual breaks between text, so these I made very small, approximately 1/8 of an inch. The third and fifth columns house the articles, so these are the biggest, measuring in at approximately 2.5 inches each. How do you size the columns? You know the drill: hover your mouse over the column or row line and move the cross-hairs cursor.
While I was preparing the newsletter format, I kept a separate file strictly for writing columns. Once I had a handle on the relative length and importance of these columns, I started copying and pasting them into the table. You already know how to copy and paste. I won't bore you with the details.
> Getting Fancy
To create the colored article headings (with text in white, 14 point Haettenschweiler) I used the Frames feature. For example, to insert the blue box for the title to the Water Conservation article, I placed my cursor in the top left corner of the third column and then clicked Frame from the Insert pull-down menu.
Doing so, opens the Frame dialog box, which displays myriad options. Since I didn't really know what I was doing much less what I wanted, I just clicked the OK button. When I did, a small box appeared. The box was by default selected and ready to work with, again indicated by the green squares in each corner and in the middle of each side. I clicked and dragged a couple of these green squares to size the frame. Simple.
When you're working on a frame, the context-sensitive toolbar across the top of the page changes somewhat to offer new options for Frames. (See Figure 4.) For example, the Frames Toolbar displays icons that let you fill the frame with a background color and indicate how you want text to appear in relation to the frame. I filled the frame with blue and then chose to center the text. You can even link text frames so their contents automatically flow from one frame to another using the link button on the context-sensitive Frame toolbar.
I also used frames to create visual borders around a few of the articles and around the clip art images I downloaded from the Web and inserted into the newsletter. (See Clipping Art from the Web.) I didn't spend a lot of time fiddling with all of the frame options because I didn't need to. The options I did need were readily apparent and intuitive to use. When I created these frames, I anchored them to the paragraph and indicated I wanted text to wrap around the clip art frames. The icons for anchoring, textwrap options, borders, alignment, fills and the like automatically appear in the toolbar when you select a frame.
Note: This same functionality exists with any object within OO Writer. For example, when your cursor enters a table, it reflects tables options; when your cursor is inside a bullet list or outline, context-sensitive buttons also display.
> Protecting the Draft
As you can probably see by looking at Figure 1, for the second page, I simply created a three-column, one-row table using the same steps and methods described above.
Once I had completed the first draft, I needed to submit it to other members of the Board for their review. While I welcomed their comments, I certainly did not want any of them messing with my newly-minted precious. To avoid this possibility, I saved the newsletter as a .pdf document.
As I mentioned in the first article in this series, exporting an OO Writer document as a .pdf is a simple, one-click process. I saved my document, then clicked Export as PDF from the File pull-down menu. The conversion happens so quickly, it's difficult to believe your document is nestled all snug in its new .pdf bed. If you're the paranoid sort, like me, open Adobe Reader to check, but trust me: your document, like my newsletter, will be there in its new .pdf format looking just as perfect as it did as an .odt.
> Preparing for Next Time
The final step was to create a template to simplify the creation of the next newsletter (due mid-Winter). I have to admit that while I have used plenty of templates, I have never created one. I also have to admit that I was afraid I would not be able to figure out how to create one. You should also know that I have a nasty habit of postponing (sometimes indefinitely) tasks that I am afraid of.
Given this, you shouldn't be surprised that I finally created the template for my newsletter the day before this article was due on my editor's desk. Furthermore, the only reason I created the template at that time was because I had carted my kids to the dentist, laptop dutifully in tow, only to realize that the latest version of my article was on my thumb drive at home. Faced with 90 minutes of Tony Orlando and periodic reports on the hazards of poor dental hygiene, I decided to distract myself by attempting to create the template.
The process proved to be a short-lasted distraction. It was too simple. I opened my newsletter, simply deleted the text leaving all the formatting intact and clicked Save from the Templates option in the File pull-down menu. (See Figure 5.) As prompted, I typed in a name (Newsletter) for the new template and then clicked OK. And that was it.
When I create the next newsletter, I will click New in the File pulldown menu and then select Templates and Documents. Then I simply click to open the Newsletter template, which opens ready to receive new titles and text.
> What's Coming up Next?
For the record, the newsletter received rave reviews from the Board and from the handful of residents I call my friends. At the next meeting, I will attempt to impress them further by explaining that I now have a template and will pass it along to future members of the Board tasked with preparing the newsletter.
The rest of the story is that I sent the .pdf off to Kinkos for printing, picked it up two days later, and then mailed it off to the 40 residents, which brings me to the topic of my next article: I'll discuss how to create mailing labels–the easy way.
I also discovered that my template could be much improved by using Styles. Creating Styles will enable me to simply choose "Blue Article Header" from a prepared list, after which will appear the bluefilled frame ready to receive the white and centered 14-point Haettenschweiler article title. Similarly, I will be able to click styles for font changes and for my clip-art and text frames. We'll discuss using Styles and Templates in the BrainShare issue of Novell Connection magazine, scheduled for March 2007.
Until next time, remember this: a closed system, like a closed mind, costs too much. The price? Your freedom. So keep an open mind and consider open software.