It is often said that even Steve Jobs may have failed at saving Apple after returning to the company if it hadn’t been for Microsoft’s promise to keep offering a Macintosh version of its flagship Office package. Most of us need to sometimes write letters, run presentations, calculate spreadsheets, etc., so Apple does indeed need to make sure that an “industrial strength” office package is available for the Mac, especially if they want to lure business users over to the platform.
In a recent column, Robert S. Cringely has suggested that Apple should adopt an open-source office package in order to be less dependent on Microsoft, and that OpenOffice.org would be a good choice to build upon. While I do think that Apple’s adoption of open source software generally is a good move, I sincerely hope that they won’t “port” OpenOffice.org outright, but continue to expand iWork, instead. Here’s why.
On my Windows machine at work, I use OpenOffice.org 2 almost daily. It’s a capable and feature-rich piece of software, and you definitely can’t beat it in the bang-for-your-buck arena. But its roots go back to the mid-nineties and it does show its age in some of its UI concepts. Let me point out just two differences between OOo and iWork to show you what I mean.
Objects vs. Formatting
If you insert a table from the insert menu into your Pages document, it will behave like a real drawing object, i.e., you can select the table, you can drag-n-drop it around, you can select more than one table to make changes to both table’s properties in one go, etc. In OOo Writer, a table behaves more like fancy text formatting: a table cannot be selected per se, it cannot be re-positioned by dragging-n-dropping the whole table, you cannot select multiple tables, and, if you want to delete a table, you will run into one of the most un-intuitive features yet: instead of simply clicking on the table and hitting the delete key, you must place the text cursor inside one of the table’s cells and select a menu command specifically for deleting tables. That’s because the usual cut/copy/paste/delete commands only work on the table’s contents, and not on the table itself.
Modeless is good for you!
A more obvious advance in terms of usability, though, is the concept of the inspector palette found in a lot of Apple’s apps: whereas in OpenOffice.org you still have to open a modal dialog box, change the parameters, close the box, check the result and, more often than not, repeat this process several times until the result looks just right, any changes applied via Pages’s inspectors appear in your document immediately, saving quite a few mouse moves and clicks. Alternatively, you could, of course, use toolbars in OOo, but, unlike iWork’s inspector palettes, they cover a considerable chunk of your work area and only provide access to a subset of the respective features.
Although you can get used to OpenOffice.org’s older-fashioned approaches, and although iWork has its share of UI oddities, too, I tend to feel that OpenOffice’s user interface gets in the way much more often than Pages’s does — and this simply has a noticable impact on how well you can focus on the actual work you’re doing inside those apps.
Picking only the juicy bits
Adopting code from the OpenOffice.org project — and, of course, contributing back to the publicized codebase! — is a great idea, just like adopting KHTML was for getting Safari out the door. But, just as it did with Safari, Apple should restrict this to adopting “behind-the-scences-code” only like, say, routines for parsing the contents of a spreadsheet cell *hint, hint*. As for the UI design, however: let’s not fall back behind the status-quo of the promising nifty ideas that are implemented in Pages and Keynote already.