OpenOffice.org beta was released today. I think I can already post about it since it appears to be the same build as the BEA300m2 developer snapshot that I had been using. Overall, it feels like a lackluster release that hasn’t received much usability love. Really, you’d expect a lot more from a product that has broad corporate support from Sun Microsystems and IBM and is the de facto standard cross-platform office suite. There’s a problem when your main version release takes upwards of two years to make and the big features that you highlight are “the new ‘Start Centre’, new fresh-looking icons, and a new zoom control in the status bar”.
I hate to tell the OpenOffice devs, but these ‘new fresh-looking icons’ passed the point of being either new or fresh looking around 2001. I know I’m a Mac guy and probably vain about my user interface, but seriously… these icons are unattractive at the small size, and downright hideous at the large size. Tango icons look much better, and Tango is nothing to write home about. Thing is, if it weren’t for those icons you wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference between 2.x and 3.x.
There seem to have been very few, if any, usability improvements. Apple is doing innovative stuff with iWork Pages in simplifying the UI and adding context sensitive formatting; IBM is doing some innovative stuff with Symphony by putting all of the context-sensitive editing on the right side of the screen to take better advantage of documents being vertical and most new monitors being widescreen; Microsoft is doing usability studies and trying to find a way that works better for their users, although there have been some issues with the “Ribbon,” at least they’re trying. I understand OpenOffice.org’s philosophy is ‘looks like Word ’97’, but can’t they find a better key selling point than “you should use our product because we don’t evolve from a familiar, crufty old interface.”
Some months ago, one of the developers was arguing against critics of OpenOffice.org’s look and feel, saying that it could and would be made to look native on platforms, OS X in particular. And one person posted on the 3.0 roadmap wiki extolling the merits of taking the approach that IBM was with Symphony. I guess these persons weren’t very high up on the food chain.
I’m a strong supporter of open standards, OASIS OpenDocument in particular. I whole heartedly believe that OOXML is wrong to be a standard because of the lack of attention to technical flaws, complexity, and less-than-a-single-vendor implementation (not to mention how the whole standardization process went down). But, given the ISO’s approval of OOXML and the fact that this new OpenOffice.org represents the “best of” breed in ODF suites, I’m afraid that we’d all better start learning to speak Chinese… that is… recognizing OOXML. Actually, I guess everyone else already has.
I realize that this is a lot of criticism for a fresh out of the oven Beta, but I also realize that there’s not likely to be many UI changes between now and OpenOffice.org 3.0 final in September. At least I can count on some performance improvements though, because the Beta that I’m using runs like a crippled dog on a quad-core Mac Pro.