I am not particularly planning at this stage to blog about my thoughts on them, apart from some asides here, but I have been thinking about what criteria I would use to judge them. For a start, I am only interested in the word processing and presentation parts. Then I have two different uses: one is writing reports, the other is for use with professional/industrial publishing.
The things I look for for writing reports?
- Ease of drawing simple diagram
- Spell checking
- Styles that correspond to HTML well
- A style equivalent to the <pre> tag, to allow code fragments
- Autonumbering that copes with me moving things around easily.
- Ability to generate utterly simple HTML with styles stripped out and with real <p> tags not <br>
Of these, for example, I think Word is exceptional in #1, utterly terrible on the last two, enough to put me off using Word a deal of the time. Adobe FrameMaker is wonderful at the autonumbering, in contrast.
And what are the things that I look for in a system for professional/industrial publishing?
- Support large documents, and multi-chapter books
- Support styles and master pages/templates
- Support quality typesetting: DTP-like fine tuning of typography and fonts
- Run-in heads, floats, sidebars, and any design features to make it easy to have highly packed multi-frame pages
- Support frames and <div>-like containers that can cause styles changes
- Native XML format: all typesetting features available in the XML
- Import and Export standard XML-in-ZIP formats
- Round type XML attributes and elements not used internally
- Pull arbitrary data from an XML document onto page using XPaths
- Some kind of support for arbitrary XML
- Some kind of schema-awareness for arbitrary schemas
I admit that these are not SOHO must-haves...
Being human, there is another requirement. Cubby Broccoli's famous Put the money on the screen. The user interfaces for office suite drawing packages are particularly bad in this regard: the user model seems to be that the user will place one or two things only, they won't be resized, there will never have to be consistency between objects and so on. Ideas like selecting a pallette to be used for the document, or allowing stretchable arrows anchored to things get short shrift.
I was glad to see that Lotus Symphony has taken some effort to catch-up with Offices Ribbon component (and for a Java version of this component, see Kiril Grouchnikov's continuing work with the Flamingo components): ribbons and context-sensitive bars are much superior to basic menus, it seems to me.
I see that WordPerfect X4 also has "live preview" which is so nice on Office.
One feature in StarOffice 9 I really liked was the ability to read PDF files into the drawing packages. Being able to edit these files is really great, even if just a line or a phrase at a time, and would have been so useful in projects 10 years ago. I see that WordPerfect also claims to be able to do this.
Actually, now I am at the end of the blog, the WordPerfect demo has installed. It first presents a box that says which view I want, which give quite different user experiences: it makes a lot of sense to me. "Reveal codes" is a blast from the past, but very practical in the XML age. The "Word" mode is almost quaint now: we sometimes muse at my work about all the tenders which specify "a Word-like interface" for editing software applications (it is a common requirement), because Word does not meet those requirements not (and good thing too: one less ugly thing in the universe!)
Another interesting thing is that WordPerfect has Save As XML as a top-level GUI item (like save as HTML): it saves as DOCBOOK. I typeset my big XML & SGML cookbook with WordPerfectSGML a decade ago (after looking at many alternatives, it snuck in as the most practical approach, ultimately because even though the text was already written in SGML I liked the grammar-checking so much) so I have a fondness for it and its good level of stuctured support back then.
The state of the art?
My general feeling is that the number one popular system, Office, is way ahead in many areas such as GUI and making XML fragments usable, but has really deeply-entrenched limitations in its core typesetting. The number two popular systems, the OpenOffice family, are partying like its 1999. And some of the really compelling alternatives which were way ahead a decade ago, like FrameMaker and WordPerfect, have languished, losing market share to the market dominator in the 90s and to open source software in this decade, and are relegated to niche markets like technical documentation and legal publishing, despite their qualities.
The advent of the web has also meant that paper publishing is generally a by-product of generating electronic documents and the quality considerations of getting great typesetting onto printed paper have been relegated out of the modern consciousness. I glanced through a rarely opened book printed before WWII recently, and I was utterly astounded at how beautiful it was in comparison to modern books.
This is not an aesthetic judgment, but a physical one: the letters were incredibly sharp, distinct and crisp. Its ease of reading relaxed me like morphine. So great, compared to the screens and newspapers and technical books (which tend to use fonts with rather thicker than necessary lines, as an aid to photocopying and because they may be read lying on a desk a few inches further than comfortable hand-held distance) we usually have to endure.