3 recent OpenOffice.org extensions
Although I do most of my professional writing in Bluefish, I usually use OpenOffice.org at least once a day. Consequently, I keep a close eye on the OpenOffice.org Extensions page.
These days, many extensions are language-specific or clipart collections that most people will never use. Others are filters for exchanging files with specific formats, such as Google Doc. Annoyingly, some recent extensions are thinly disguised advertisements for a company's service or issued under proprietary licences, although OpenOffice.org seems less plagued by these problems than Firefox.
Still, useful workaday extensions keep being posted. Here are three of the ones I've been test-driving recently: History Master, VisibleBookmarks, and Writer's Tools. All of them are installed in the usual way, by downloading them to your system, adding them through Tools -> Extension Manager, then restarting OpenOffice.org, although Writer's Tools does require some additional setup.
By default, OpenOffice.org lists the last ten documents you have opened in the sub-menu File -> Recent Documents. This arrangement is fine, so far as it goes, and an improvement over the distant days when only three recent documents were displayed. But History Master goes further, adding all the enhancements that people regularly ask for on the mailing lists and then some.
History Master adds two items to the menus. The first is File -> Recent documents of the same type. This item opens the History Master Window to allow you to filter the list so it only shows documents of one type -- for example, word processing documents, or spreadsheets. When you have a long list of recent documents, this list can greatly simplify locating a document.
The second menu addition is Tools -> Add-Ons -> History Master - List handling, which opens the extension's main window. From here, you can do such frequently requested actions such as set the length of your recent document list from 0-100, and either clear or selectively delete the list. You can also move items up or down in the list (which can be handy if you want to keep a frequently used item on the list) or remove any documents from the list that are no longer accessible because they have been moved or deleted. In addition, you can switch between the default picklist and URLS if you are working with HTML documents.
None of these features are particularly arcane, but History Master also adds an entry into OpenOffice.org's Help, something that you might wish more extensions did. In fact, History master is so simple, so useful, and so careful to making menu changes where appropriate, you might wish that more extensions would follow its lead in general.
OpenOffice.org is not ideal for HTML because it does not produce clean code, and, if you use it with styles the way you are supposed to, you can use headings and the Navigator to find your way around a document. However, there are still times when you might want to use bookmarks. The only trouble is, although bookmarks are listed in the Navigator and are highlighted when you jump to them, most of the time, they look no different than the surrounding text.
VisibleBookmarks remedies this situation. It installs a three item sub-menu to Tools -> Add-ons, and, three icons on the left of the Standard toolbar -- a position that, annoyingly gives it more prominence than basic functions such as New or Open (although you can move them).
What VisibleBookmarks does is take advantage of OpenOffice.org's recently added notes pane. When you select the Visible Bookmarks icon, the extension opens a notification window telling you how many bookmarks it found, and adds a note giving the bookmark's name and anchor text. You can, of course, add other information to the note if you choose. Select Remove inserted notes, and the bookmark notes are deleted.
VisibleBookmarks also has an option to make the bookmark-related notes visible even when View -> Notes is not selected. Unfortunately, though, this option does not work if my experience is any indication. However, since View -> Notes is selected by default, that is a small flaw.
My personal preference would be to add a shading for bookmarks in Tools -> Options -> OpenOffice.org -> Appearances. But, short of that, VisibleBookmarks seems an acceptable alternative.
Written by my fellow journalist Dimitri Popov, Writer's Tools is an extension that frequently finds its way to the top of the list of the most popular offerings at OpenOffice.org Extensions. I reviewed Writer's Tools in one of its earliest incarnations, but it has changed extensively in the eighteen months since then.
Writer's Tools is considerably more complex than the average extension, and some of its features require setting up a database. You might want to consider buying and downloading Popov's documentation to go along with the extension, although you can find instructions for free online if you do a little searching.
The extension installs a separate top-level menu, with a list of twenty features. My main complaint about the extension is that this menu could be be better organized, with similar features grouped together and separated from other categories by separators, but, this inconvenience is relatively minor.
Among Writer's Tools features are a number of extensions to online resources, such as Google Translate and Maps. Other tools back up or your work to email or a remote site, including Amazon S3, or post it to a blog. For actual productivity, Writer's Tools offers a timer and visual word count, a notebook, and a task list, and several features for managing bookmarks. Despite the name of the extension, many of these tools would be useful for any one using OpenOffice.org.
None of Writer's Tools features are standouts. However, taken as a collection, they add up to a solid set of tools -- and ones that, unlike the features in other applications for writers, you might actually want to use, regardless of whether they consider themselves a writer or simply a word processor user.
Something for everyone
These extensions will probably not fit everybody's needs or habits. Still, they are worth trying, and so are many of the other extensions that are released each week.
Although they can vary wildly in quality, OpenOffice.org's extensions are the closest that the project has come to truly community-oriented development. Explore the site, and if what you download doesn't suit you -- well, the price was right, and all you've lost is a few minutes of your time.
Bruce Byfield (nanday)