More than a year after KDE 4.0 unveiled a radically revised desktop, KOffice 2.0 is preparing to release an equally revised office suite, which should be released before this article is published (KOffice 2.0-RC-1 was released in April 2009).
What users will see is not an extensive new feature set, but only a few additions here and there. Instead, just as KDE 4.0 provided the foundation for future developments on the desktop, KOffice promises to provide a solid basis for future improvements. Reflecting changes in the toolkit and library, the newest version of KOffice delivers a common interface across applications, enhanced graphical capacities and new accessibility to existing tools—all wrapped up in a look and feel proving that eye candy can be as much about usability and functionality as about superficial aesthetics. These changes are especially visible in major applications like KWord, KSpread, KPresenter, and Krita and Karbon14 (the main graphics programs), although they are evident in other KOffice applications as well.
This emphasis means that those who were hoping KOffice 2.0 would finally allow the office suite to match the rival OpenOffice.org feature for feature are going to be disappointed. If the late beta I am working from is a guide, KPresenter still will not have the ability to use sound or video, and KSpread will continue to lack filters and pivot tables. In fact, some features of KOffice 1.6.3, the previous official release, such as comments and expressions (autotext) in KWord or tables in KPresenter, may not find their way into KOffice 2.0 either. When you do find new features, they are apt to be fundamental ones, such as more printing options for KSpread.
However, this focus does not mean KOffice is lacking in scope. By any standard, KOffice 2.0 is an ambitious undertaking. With 11 applications to OpenOffice.org's six, and a considerably worse ratio of programmers, any release of KOffice is an exercise in logistics second only to a new version of KDE itself—and version 2.0 is more challenging than most releases. The new release not only marks KOffice's transition to the Qt 4.x toolkit, like most KDE-related software, but also new ports to OS X and Windows.
If that were not enough, version 2.0 also marks the first use of two major libraries: Flake, which introduces a new concept of shapes, together with tools to manage them; and Pigment, a color management library. No wonder, then, that the release is happening 16 months after the KDE 4.0 release and has staggered through ten alpha and seven beta releases. But, when KOffice 2.0 finally reaches release, the result promises to be a revamping that will allow the project developers to add smaller enhancements in point releases.
Like the KDE 3.0 series, KOffice 1.6.3 is functional but easy to underestimate, because it looks like a refugee from the late 1990s. By contrast, KOffice 2.0 looks as though it is designed to ensure that nobody ever will dismiss it solely on the basis of appearance.
Ever since Microsoft Office 2007 replaced menus and toolbars with ribbons, rival office suites have been faced with the dilemma of either copying and looking modern or retaining the functionality of traditional program design and looking out of date. OpenOffice.org 3.0 met the challenge with a compromise that kept the traditional structure but increased the number of floating palettes or windows—selections of tools that could be positioned anywhere on the desktop or docked in the toolbar or against one side of the editing window. In version 2.0, KOffice's developers have opted for a similar solution, calling them dockers and adding controls for turning each one on or off in the Settings menu.
Dockers are accompanied by two panes to either side of the editing window. On the left is a pane with icons specific to the application. On the right is the pane containing multiple dockers. Click on an icon in the application pane, and the available dockers on the right change. The application pane, the docker pane or any individual docker can be removed from its position to float freely by dragging its title bar with the mouse. You also can drag dockers into different positions on the right-hand pane.
Alternatively, you can close panes, toolbars or dockers, or change the horizontal space given to the docker pane. Unless you are working with a maximized window on a wide-screen monitor, sooner or later, you probably will want to use these customizations to give yourself room to work.
Possibly too, you might want to reduce the number of dockers, especially when you are first learning KOffice 2.0. Otherwise, the effect is like sitting down in the cockpit of a commercial airliner and trying not to be overwhelmed by the dozens of controls available.
The success of this interface varies with the application and your use of it. The layout works best in feature-rich programs, such as Krita and Karbon14, where they increase the accessibility of tools (although at first you might find yourself peering anxiously as you wait for the mouse-over text to tell you what each icon does). In fact, both these graphics programs actually have had a very similar arrangement in earlier releases, which may be where the design originated. But in KSpread, it might seem like worthless clutter, because many of the dockers have to do with graphics or layout, neither of which many spreadsheets need. Similarly, if your word processing never extends beyond a memo, you might find that the default docker pane is overkill. The same is true in KPresenter if you don't do original diagrams.
Still, despite their initially formidable appearance, these panes and dockers do have the advantage of removing many tools from their hiding places in the menu and placing them where users can become curious and investigate them. You may find yourself learning more about KOffice applications than ever before, simply because you can see more of the possibilities.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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