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NeoOffice

Volume Number: 20 (2004)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Programming

NeoOffice

J Walks Into Aqualand

by Dean Shavit

The Office Wars

When David Sobsey, Editor for the new MacTech, first contacted me about writing for this magazine, he pointed me at a link to the MacTech Writer's kit, a Microsoft Word template and set of style sheets to properly format my articles for import into QuarkXpress. Being the open-source nut I am, I immediately began scrambling for something other than Microsoft Word to write the article. So, I turned to my favorite Microsoft Office alternative, NeoOffice/J. To understand NeoOffice/J, it's helpful to rehash a bit of the old word processing wars, which some would argue are still fomenting, but which really ended (at least on the Mac front) in 1998, with the release of Microsoft Office 98.

The first word processor to make it to the the PowerPC architecture was WordPerfect 3.5 for Macintosh, which some would still argue is the very best Mac word processor ever. In the end, it was given away as a free download by Corel, then mothballed for the ages. WordPerfect was fast, stable, and made sense, without the heavy interface and awful sluggishness of its chief rival, Microsoft Word 6, then part of Office 4.2. It's still possible to find free downloads of WordPerfect 3.5 on the Internet; and it's still a pleasure, even in Classic under OS X--still perfect! Eventually, Word 6 and Office 4.2 made it to the Mac as a PowerPC native application, but by then, the damage had been done--Microsoft Word was forever (somewhat unfairly, especially with the decent, if sometimes unstable, releases of Office 98 through 2004 ) tagged as a lumbering, bloated, behemoth of a word processor, somewhat forced down Mac users' throats as a standard rooted in the "one of us" mentality necessitated by the need for Windows compatibility.

So, Mac users have reluctantly used Microsoft Word and Microsoft Office over the years (some even sticking with the venerable and venerated Word 5.1), with grudging respect paid to the Mac BU (Microsoft Mac Business Unit) for its continued support of the Mac portion of its office empire. That didn't mean that Mac Users didn't look for alternatives, though. AppleWorks, Mariner Write/Calc, and ThinkFree Office all had their shots at Microsoft Office, though none of them did a very good job at the compatibility portion, which limited their successes. After all, an Excel spreadsheet with Macros that don't work or broken links isn't a very good substitute for the real thing, nor a Word document with missing headers, graphics or scrambled formatting, not to overlook that until Apple released Keynote, there wasn't a good PowerPoint compatible substitute of a presentation program, even in the glimmer of the most hardcore anti-Microsoft Mac user's eye.

Sun Buys In

Sun Microsystems, in the desire to compete in the Office Wars (along with the likes of Perfect Office and Lotus SmartSuite) bought the rights to StarOffice (also known as StarSuite) from the German developer StarDivision in 1999 at a cost of 73.5 million dollars, and it wasn't long before Sun was offering free downloads of StarOffice 5.2 for individual use. In a similar move to Netscape's spawning of the Mozilla Project and Foundation, Sun gifted the code base to establish the OpenOffice Project under the LGPL (Lesser GNU Public License--http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/lesser.txt) under which Sun and the open-source community work together to develop Sun's Commercial StarOffice and the LGPL OpenOffice. When Sun is readying a new release of StarOffice, it takes a code snapshot of the OpenOffice project and adds its own proprietary components which include:

  • UNICODE TrueType fonts containing bitmaps for better visibility at smaller font sizes
  • Adabas B database
  • More document templates
  • A Gallery of clip art
  • Some sorting functionality for Asian localized version of StarOffice
  • Import filters for older word processors

Presently, StarOffice costs $54.60 for a download version, and a subscription model's been available since the beginning of the year in Japan for $19 per year. StarOffice 7 isn't the Microsoft Office killer Sun had hoped for, though StarOffice 8 shows some promise with its nine million lines of C++, but it's solidly stuck competing for second fiddle with WordPerfect Office at this point in time. StarOffice comes with an update plan and support for purchasers, and runs on Windows, Linux, Solaris, but not OS X.

X On X

With the release of OS X 10.1 in 2001, all of us early adopters exhaled a relieved sigh of beta-breath and began the business of going about our daily business using OS X. Some of us wannabe geeks found the Fink project (http://fink.sourceforge.net) and started having some fun with X Windows and Linux program on OS X. These days before the advent of Apple's X Windows application were fun and full of pioneering spirit--choosing your window manager, for instance, whether AfterStep, Oroborus, TWM, Window Maker and OroborusOSX to use with XDarwin, the predecessor to Apple's X Windows (there are still instructions on how to use XDarwin bundled with OpenOffice 1.1.2) always made for a fun night of tweaking. In November of 2001, my business partner and I gave our first presentation on open source entitled "X on X" at the Apple Market Center in Chicago, which eventually evolved into our staple "Free to Run Your Business." Attendees at the Apple Market Center asked about the availability of OpenOffice for X11, but it wasn't until late 2002 that stable builds of OpenOffice beta versions were available, with the first GM (golden master) port of OpenOffice for OS X appearing in early 2003, and the official release of OpenOffice for X11 on OS X coming on June 23, 2003.

My initial tests of OpenOffice began months before the June 23, 2003 release. I made a concerted effort to move most of my day to day work over to OpenOffice Writer but found myself continually frustrated by the lack of drag-and-drop, the paragraph styles window pinned inside the main window ala' Windows 3.1, having to use control+C to copy instead of command+C, the out-of-place menu bar at the top of the window, the creepy feeling that I needed to buy a three-button mouse, not to mention the insufferable X Windows fonts that substituted themselves for the Microsoft Office fonts. Later iterations of OpenOffice incorporated the fondu command-line tool which imported fonts from OS X, sometimes with horrendous results.

As a matter of fact, it was the font-mangling of a training manual I was writing that estranged me from OpenOffice for a nearly a year, consigning me back to using the save-often-in-case-it-unexpectedly-quits Microsoft Word X. Basically, OpenOffice was un-Mac-like, and I couldn't image any user except for the most tech-savvy tolerating X Windows and a UI that looked like a Windows 2000 knockoff in place of a "true" Mac word processor. I had installed it on several clients' Macs who didn't want to fork over the dough for Microsoft Office, but each quickly rejected it (mostly because accidentally clicking the close box in the corner of the Window would instantly quit the program without even prompting to save changes); I even considered using OpenOffice as somewhat of ploy to get clients to open their wallets and bite the Office bullet. Even more perplexing was the appearance of an OpenOffice CD in a retail box on the shelves of the North Michigan Avenue Flagship Apple Store in Chicago early this summer which left me wondering who would buy OpenOffice, and even more so, who would keep it and not return it, as if it would be a satisfactory substitute for even the likes of AppleWorks for the casual user. Any X11-savvy user would obviously be able to download it and install it themselves, so I naturally wondered who was the target buyer. Out of sheer curiosity, I almost bought one of the yellow boxes to see exactly what could justify the $29 sale price--hopefully someone to call for installation help, at the very least, along with a decent manual, even though I knew from hefting the box, that that manual wasn't in paper form.


OpenOffice 1.0 with Prisoner Paragraph Styles Window

NeoOffice Breaks Away

Right at about the same time the first beta builds of OpenOffice for OS X and X11 were showing up at OpenOffice.org, a group of developers established the NeoOffice project. This, taken from the FAQ at NeoOffice.org, explains the branching off from the OpenOffice project.

NeoOffice is simply a planning tool to help guide the OpenOffice.org Mac OS X porting community along. It is a quick hack and not engineered for long-term maintainability. We have already learned enough about the QuickDraw+Cocoa+Carbon brew used by NeoOffice to know it is unstable and requires a fragile, convoluted infrastructure to be functional, and in parts relying on undocumented behavior and AppKit interfaces. . . .These changes are not suitable for OpenOffice.org which needs to be stable codewise and have a strong enough engineering foundation to last for the next 10 years.

NeoOffice is simply a planning tool to help guide the OpenOffice.org Mac OS X porting community along. It is a quick hack and not engineered for long-term maintainability. We have already learned enough about the QuickDraw+Cocoa+Carbon brew used by NeoOffice to know it is unstable and requires a fragile, convoluted infrastructure to be functional, and in parts relying on undocumented behavior and AppKit interfaces. . . .These changes are not suitable for OpenOffice.org which needs to be stable codewise and have a strong enough engineering foundation to last for the next 10 years.


NeoOffice/J Logo

Paralleling the efforts of the NeoOffice team to bring OpenOffice out of the X Windows world and into the land of Aqua, was Apple's plan to enhance the OS X Developer Tools (XCode) to support porting more UNIX and Linux applications to OS X in the next major release--Panther. All along, the challenge in porting OpenOffice to run natively in Aqua was twofold. First, the NeoOffice team had to replace the VCL graphics used in OpenOffice with either Carbon or Aqua interface elements. Second, there was the challenge of the bringing over the interface widgets and elements from X11 to Aqua. This proved to be no easy task, as Apple's Developer tools had little facility for translating interface elements from one GUI to another. All that changed with the release of XCode and Panther.

One Man's Vision

A couple of years ago there were some pretty exciting rumors that Apple would invest resources into a joint OpenOffice project with Sun Microsystems to bring it to OS X as an Aqua Application and a freely bundled alternative to Microsoft Office. Looking at the progress of OpenOffice and OS X, it's now evident that if such a project exists, it's kept under close wraps.

Evidently, rumors weren't good enough for one software engineer named Patrick Luby. Patrick, or pluby, (or "the Architect") as he's known on the Trinity BBS (the on line bulletin board for the NeoOffice Project, http://trinity.neooffice.org), had spent much of his professional career at Sun Microsystems porting the StarOffice source for the Mac OS X OpenOffice project, as well as work on the Java Web Services Developer Pack (JWSDP). Since 2002, Luby has been the chief engineer at Planamesa Software, host of the NeoOffice project, a one-man consulting company run our of his home, where he consults on Apache Tomcat and Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE). On June 20th, 2003, NeoOffice/J was launched with the following message:

Say hello to NeoOffice/J! NeoOffice/J is a prototyping project that, like NeoOffice, aims to mate OpenOffice.org and Mac OS X without the need for X11. Through achieving tighter integration with the underlying operating system, it should be possible to provide better native font support and links to Services and Mail! Check it out, and now all you Java specialists, you have no excuse for not jumping on the bandwagon and pushing us to the finish line!

On July 21, 2003, NeoOffice/J 0.0.1 was released to absolute silence. It wasn't until NeoOffice/J 0.8, released in January 2004, that certain people, including myself, began to take notice. I wrote an article entitled "Office Suites for OS X: A Mac Survival Guide" published on http://www.themachelpdesk.com that coincided with the release of Microsoft Office 2004, which, while grudging thanking Microsoft for its updated and slick Office suite, also speculated on the "what if" scenario of Microsoft dropping Office for the Macintosh altogether, and where that would leave Mac users. I concluded that NeoOffice/J was the only truly viable alternative for the "real thing." Billed as "stable enough for everyday use," I gave NeoOffice/J 0.8 a workout and found it to be every bit as compatible with Microsoft Office as OpenOffice, with additional enhancements such as the ability to access OS X fonts without using fondu to convert them during the installation process, and allowing the standard command key shortcuts instead of the control key shortcuts that OpenOffice required. Of course, running without X Windows was refreshing, even though the menus still remained pinned to the top of the main NeoOffice/J window, and the paragraph styles window remained imprisoned as a daughter window. Other features included the ability to cut and paste between NeoOffice/J and OS X applications. Unfortunately, NeoOffice/J still doesn't support mice with scroll wheels. Yet.

Version 1.1 of NeoOffice/J included the source code from OpenOffice 1.1, and brought additional features such as the ability to email a document directly, and freed the Paragraph Styles window from its daughter status to a separate window outside the main window. Further patches ensued, and by September 16, 2004, NeoOffice/J had made it up to version 1.1 Alpha 2, which was so good, I decided to demo it to a large client that was considering OpenOffice for all of its Windows users, in early October. The client was astounded, but did acknowledge that the interface appeared "foreign" to Macintosh users, and in some usability and stress testing with selected users, it fell short due to just that problem. My response to the client was to "wait a little," as the development of NeoOffice/J seemed to be accelerating.


NeoOffice/J with X Windows-Style Menus

Into Aqualand

So, based on the conclusion of user testing, and a pressing need to upgrade to OS X for multiple reasons, my client decided to go with a purchase of Microsoft Office 2004 for its 200 users, mostly graphic designers who had little use for Office other than for light word processing. Total cost of the Microsoft Office upgrades: nearly $30,000. It was a bit of a blow to myself and to the client, all things considered, I'd hoped to place NeoOffice/J at a site to see it in day to day production, and since the OS X Finder sees it as a single file, it's a drag and drop install, which can easily be updated via Apple Remote Desktop, login hooks (scripts) or some other form of file system management tool.

A couple of weeks went by, and in the planning process, the subject of NeoOffice/J came up again, in the context of "I wish it were ready." So, just to make sure, I double-checked the Trinity BBS. Lo and behold, there it was, the "NeoOffice/J Aqua menu patch" ready for downloading and testing, along with the disclaimer:

It may be buggy and it may either crash or hang Neo/J. But if you would like to test the new Aqua menus, download instructions for the Aqua menu patch are available in the NeoJ Testing forum. Since this code has not yet been fully tested, I do not recommend that you install the Aqua menu patch if you are using NeoJ for critical work. If you are doing critical work, I recommend that install the latest NeoJ 1.1 Alpha 2 non-Aqua menu patch from the NeoOffice/J download site.


NeoOffice/J with the Aqua Menus Patch


Paragraph Styles Freed from their "Parent" Window


NeoOffice/J Spreadsheet with Aqua Menus


NeoOffice/J Vcard Interfaces


A Peek Inside NeoOffice/J

Duly warned, I tested the Aqua menus patch. Not only did the patch bring the NeoOffice/J menu bar to its rightful place at the top of the screen, but it also brought each individual open document into its own separate window, which would prompt for a save if the user clicked on the red close widget. Ed Peterlin, one of the original founders of the NeoOffice project is the author of the Aqua Menus patch, using his experience from "Flaming Yeti" and "Incendiary Goblin." As far as hanging or crashing, I experienced none, except for a known bug which causes the print dialog to lockup NeoOffice/J if the user attempts to switch printers (that should be fixed really soon) and have yet to experience one hiccup (aside from a PowerPoint presentation laden with complex animations) when testing across several hardware configurations and versions of OS X 10.3. As I write this, my client is deliberating on when, not if, to deploy NeoOffice/J. Although the "official" OpenOffice.org timetables states that the aquafication effort will begin with OpenOffice 2.0, current OpenOffice 2.0 development code is still rooted in Xwindows (it be might be quite some time before it runs on OS X as a native application), so it's absolutely wonderful to see the NeoOffice team jaywalk off the established development path to bring it to Aqua early.

The finish line's in sight. Should NeoOffice/J ever come to a point where it's considered "done," (In my opinion it's pretty much there right now), it would be the single greatest win for Open-Source development on OS X, ever, even Apple's own Safari non withstanding. As a matter of fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that NeoOffice/J is perhaps the single greatest hope that OS X has right now to be rid of dependence on Microsoft for schools, corporations, and individual users who don't want to pay through the nose to be compatible with the rest of the world. With NeoOffice/J, Apple's Open-Source strategy and Developer Tools have paid off. Big Time.

Having seen Patrick Luby and the NeoOffice/J team bring the OpenOffice source code to a viable and adoptable point, the question that presents itself is quite logical. If OpenOffice, which has an interface as complex as any X Windows application can be brought to OS X via Java interface elements, does that mean that the same techniques could be applied to other X Windows applications such as GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program), or the KDE Application suite, or the Ethereal network sniffer? With improvements to Java in OS X and the XCode tools, this could be shortest, best, and fastest path to aquafication. As a matter of fact, I recently gave the beta of the Novell Group wise cross-platform client for OS X a spin, and it uses similar Java wrappers for running in Aqua without X Windows. And quite frankly, even though it works, it's sluggish, crashes a lot, doesn't support drag and drop, and has dialog boxes that look like stock a Java app. Groupwise hasn't had a decent client for the Mac since 1997, and its survival in businesses with many Mac users is in doubt, despite its numerous advantages over Microsoft Exchange (22 gig inbox, any takers in the Exchange world?), and the cross-platform client doesn't hold out a whole lot of hope for Mac users, no matter how much tweaking's done.

Given Novell's recent purchase of Ximian Evolution, perhaps the best email client for X Windows ever written, it's quite possible that we might see Evolution 2.0, with its now freely available Microsoft Exchange connector, ported using the same Java interface techniques. Should Novell be looking for a good partner in this effort, I can wholeheartedly recommend Planamesa Software and the NeoOffice/J development team, and their leader, Patrick, who's good at what he does, really really good.


Dean Shavit is an ACSA (Apple Certified System Administrator) who leads training sessions and manages consulting projects for MOST (Mac OS Training & Consulting) in Chicago. If you have questions or feedback you can contact him at dean@macworkshops.com.

 
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