OOo Off the Wall: That's Your Version--Document Control in OOo Writer
The simplest tool for document control in Writer is Edit -> Compare Documents. The Compare Documents tool works with the current document and any file with which you want to compare it. Obviously, though, the tool doesn't have much point unless you use it with an earlier or later version of a document, or perhaps one edited by someone else. The documents can be in any format that is readable by Writer.
When you select the Compare Documents tool, it opens a file manager for selecting the second file. Both files then are presented in the first document, and the Accept or Reject Changes window opens for your use.
Again, as you go through the diffs in this document with the Accept or Reject Changes window, it is important to remember how these options work. To save content unique to the first document, you need to accept it. However, to save content unique to the second document, you need to reject it. Confuse the source of the material, and your fingers will need to fly to the Ctrl+Z keys, as you hope you have set the Undo levels high enough to repair the damage.
Edit -> Changes works for changes within the same document. Some people prefer to use Changes even if no one else is working on the document. Using it allows them to find changes quickly and revert to earlier content without worrying about how many levels of Undo they have enabled. Others reserve it for times when more than one person is writing or editing a document.
Either way, to use changes, you need to turn on Edit -> Changes -> Record and Show. Depending on the situation, you also may want to select Edit -> Changes -> Protect Changes so nobody without the password can accept or reject changes.
When you are ready to deal with changes, select Edit -> Changes -> Accept or Reject to open the standard window. If you prefer, you may select Merge to sync the current file with another one of the same name.
In Writer, versions are copies of a document saved within the same file. If you look at the compressed collection of XML files that make up a Writer document, you can see a master list for versions and a Versions folder for storing them.
To save a version, select File -> Versions instead of File -> Save. Selecting the Save New Version button opens the Insert Version Comment window, allowing you to add a plain-text comment to the version. Most likely, the comment is a brief note explaining the unique features of that particular document version. The date and time, as well as your name--if you have filled out the User Data in Tools -> Options--are added automatically to the version.
If you want to save a version each time you close the document, you can check the "Always save a version on closing" box. The drawback to this option is the only comment it saves reads "Automatically saved version", which may not be too informative later on when you look back through several versions.
In addition, File -> Version lists all existing versions of the document. In the same window, you can select a version and:
Open it in a separate window
Show its comment
Delete the version
Compare it with the currently open version, using the Accept or Reject Changes window
Fair warning: versions are highly addictive. Remember that each one adds substantially to the size of the file, so you periodically should delete unneeded version. Provided that you are sure you no longer need the versions, you can use File -> Save As to dump the saved versions and save only the current one. In short, without some form of regular pruning, loading, saving and closing the file may slow to a crawl, especially if your computer has limited memory. You even may find that the document crashes regularly as the file grows out of proportion.
Even used together, Compare Documents, Changes and Versions give only rudimentary version control to your work. However, you can extend their usefulness with a little ingenuity. For example, you can use comments in Versions to add a manual version number. Similarly, you can set up something like a development tree using directories, creating new branches and using Changes or Compare Documents to merge files as necessary.
Most likely, the first reaction of programmers is to rebel against these makeshift workarounds. However, people who are working with OpenOffice.org regularly enough to need these tools are unlikely to be programmers. In fact, for these users, the mention of something such as CVS may make them panic stricken. Furthermore, OpenOffice.org files are not easy to store in many other versioning tools. For these reasons, instead of criticizing these Writer tools for their very real shortcomings, consider them to be a way to establish some basic order with minimal on-the-job training. In many cases, the alternative may be no version control at all.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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