The changing face of charts in OpenOffice.org
The charting component is probably the least satisfactory part of OpenOffice.org. A few minutes with the issue tracker shows that, since OpenOffice.org 2.0 was released, 62 issues have been filed for charting. By contrast, the bibliography component and the formula editor, two other problematic subsystems that are comparable in size, have nine and 27 issues files against them respectively. Work has begun on many of the issues about charts, but complete relief is unlikely to come until the final release of Chart 2, the rewriting of the charting component that is due to be part of the as-yet unscheduled 2.6 version of the office suite. However, those who are impatient to see what changes are coming can get a few ideas from the recent release of Milestone 8, an alpha version of Chart 2 that gives the first glimpse of what improvements to expect, not just in the way of bug fixes, but, more importantly, in interface improvements.
According to the home page for its development, Chart 2 is being written because "the current chart implementation has become unmaintainable over the years" -- a reference, no doubt, to the notorious crypticness of OpenOffice.org source code as a whole. However, rather than sidestepping the difficulty of learning the code by using plug-ins, OpenOffice.org's charting team has chosen "to reimplement the chart module from scratch to create a useable base for further development and integration of missing features."
Milestone 8 of Chart 2 is available for download in a developer's version of the entire office suite. This version does not allow saving, printing, or any other system calls, but its files can be untarred and ready for use without logging in as the root user.
You can read details of what changes are already implemented, what to test, and where to find more information on the web page for the release. Looking at the list of fixed bugs and clicking the issues they address is a better guide to Milestone 8 than I could hope to offer, so I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
As much as the bug fixes, what I notice is the interface changes. Milestone 8 updates the dialog boxes of the current version of OpenOffice.org by converting them into a wizard comparable to those for basic documents in File > Wizards, databases in File > New, or mail merges in Tools. Like these other wizards, the new chart wizard includes a list of stages in the left hand pane, and attempts, not altogether successfully, to tidy options into logical layouts.
To accommodate the new left hand pane, the new wizard eliminates the chart preview in the present dialog. Instead, the preview displays in the document itself, although a little erratically in Milestone 8. This new preview includes the chart text automatically, eliminating the option to conceal it -- which I suspect was hardly ever used.
Like the present dialog, the new chart wizard has four pages. However, these pages have been rearranged: where the present dialog starts with a selection of ranges and proceeds through chart type, variant chart type, and display options, the new wizard starts with chart type, then passes through range selection, data type, data series, and display options.
These changes bring mixed results. On the one hand, combining chart types and chart variants into the same page makes sense, because the two are closely related. On the other hand, I see little reason for the new separation of data type and data series, especially since the data type window is largely empty -- unless, of course, keeping the design of charts a four-stage process at all costs seems a reasonable idea. Admittedly, data series appear to have more options than in the new wizard, but hardly enough to warrant a separate window with a name that will mean little to inexperienced users.
Similarly, the data ranges for the chart seems a more appropriate place to start than the chart type. Maybe, though, the designers are assuming that most people select the range before selecting Insert > Chart.
The changes also include a shuffling of options. For instance, check boxes for displaying X and Y axis gridlines are moved from the chart variant page to the more logical display options.
Where the old and new windows are comparable, the new consistently groups options in a more structured manner that makes them easier to find. The most obvious example of this improvement comes in the selection of chart types. Where the old dialog lumps two and three dimensional chart types in the same pane, then shifts variations in the bar and column shapes on to another page, the new wizard displays only two dimensional types by default, and includes a separate pane on the same page for bar and column shapes.
So far, the toolbar and menus for created charts remains the same
In general, the result is an interface that is easy to use, both in itself and because of its resemblance to other interfaces scattered through the program. Considering the erraticness of much of OpenOffice.org's interface, this is a welcome change (I only wish that the uniformity would extend to more dialogs, such as the one for Envelopes in Writer, and extend to more guidance for new readers).
On the whole, Chart 2 is a step in the right direction for OpenOffice.org's charting component. However, there are at least two improvements that I would like to see before the final version of Chart is implemented.
One is the small step of changing the default colors for graphs in Tools > Options > Charts. Although the chart type window in the new wizard shows a palette of primary colors that seems suitable for a modern office suite, the actual default colors in Chart 2 are still the current pallid pastels that would be at home in Windows 3.1. It's a minor but real annoyance to have to change the colors.
More seriously, if I can dream for a moment, I would like to see charts implemented with vector graphics. Right now, all charts -- but pie charts especially -- can only be enlarged slightly before jagged edges start to show.
However, these types of improvements are refinements. What Chart 2 is doing is correcting existing problems and preparing the base on which to improve the existing system -- and these things, it appears to be doing very well so far.
Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for the Linux Journal and
Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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