Updated: February 4, 2011
In between Web apps, which tend to be minimalistic, children-oriented stripped-down versions of popular programs and massively decorated KDE-centric office suites, which probably represents the far end of the spectrum, the common user will have a tough time choosing the best program for writing documents and presenting stuff. But making the right choice for your favorite software is only the beginning of the problem. Whatever you decide upon, you're still bound to work in the same confusing, frustrating, inefficient manner like you always did.
In this article, I'll try to give you my perspective on how things ought to look like, what the typical office suite should and should not be, going through the arsenal of known programs and then branching into the brave and uncertain future. We'll see how the glum world of keyboard hammering can be saved, so that even non-geeks can write papers that look better than a raccoon roadkill.
We have a few juicy, dripping choices, but they are unto office like a tartar steak is unto a veggie. Take a moment or three and read about the world's top office repertoire.
If you like your UI to change all the time, be my guest. I'm forced to use Office 2007 at my workplace and I guarantee you it's a million times less intuitive than the older versions. Microsoft tried to reduce the visual clutter, so it split the horrendous, superbusy main menu into a handful of smaller ones, then placed them onto a tabbed panel called the Ribbon Interface. Hold your horses and eat your spurs, that's five years of programming process. Last but not the loser, this thing costs money.
Not cluttered, you see, just super-tightly condensed:
Formerly Sun, now Oracle and Schism Ltd., various forks of OpenOffice are pretty much the same product it's always been. The interface has not changed much in the last decade or so, which is both good and archaic, while never being ideal in the first place. If you think about it, all of today's office suites trace their origins back to Lotus 1-2-3, when only accountants and weirdos used graphs and tables on their personal computers.
Compared to Microsoft Office 2003, OpenOffice was always busier and somewhat less intuitive, although you can't beat the free price tag. I don't like the too-tight Java integration, which looms like an 80s pink spandex all over the place.
LibreOffice, now released, does have potential, but so does a not so bright child whose parents you do not wish to offend. Hopefully, LibreOffice will mature into a good and useful product, hopefully featuring a revamped interface.
You may also be interested in Go-oo, OpenOffice with lots of extras, but most of the changes are functional and none are visual. Bottom line, all of OpenOffice forks and spoons are pretty much identical.
OpenOffice4Kids - or OOo4Kids it is. Of all classic suites, this one seems the smartest concept, but it has not yet matured enough to become a major contender in the big league. The effort is brilliant, because kids have the highest potential of getting things right. Old folks are too set in their ways; making a 40-year-old stop practicing his nasty office habits is virtually impossible.
But then, OOo4Kids is also OpenOffice. Once you start burrowing in the menus, you eventually reach the same old problem of antiquated design and non-linear use. Plus, there's no emphasis on styles, which is exactly how office work should be taught to kids. Still, this cute program makes far more sense than any other similar program.
KOffice is a KDE application. As you may know, while Gnome is minimalistic and tries to present only a spartan interface to the user, KDE is totally maximalistic. This means that no menu is hidden, no feature is left unexposed. A prime example of too much detail is KOffice. A great program, with simply too many features and buttons.
There's a ton of them. I'll mention a couple, mostly because I've reviewed them already and I've got a handful of screenshots ready. Let's see what gives here. A new era of computing, perhaps the old scars have healed here.
Maybe the best overall choice: clean and fairly simple interface. It's still unattainable for most people, but most of the dirty stuff is tucked away for when you never need it. If anything, Google Docs manage the illusion of order, which all others fail.
A fully featured web office suite, which you run inside your browser. Not bad. However, like the rest of the bunch, there's too much detail. The legacy of how office programs are used haunts even the cloud. It seems that we're doomed to keep using the same old interface for our software only because people expect them to be that way, just as railway tracks match the width of Roman Empire carts.
As you can see, we have a problem. No office suite today does the job properly. Too much clutter, too much geekiness, too much margin for error. There's nothing preventing clueless users from making horrible mistakes again and again. If anything, the emphasis is on the lack of efficiency and potshot understanding of the vast, complex, unreadable menus.
Finally, my take on the matter ...
All - and I mean all - office suites sin the same sin - they do not force users to use styles in their documents. If you're wondering what styles are, let's branch a little into the territory of separating content from style.
Take a typical web page as an example. You have the HTML code - and you have the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) that defines how each element should look like. Styles are applied as a sort of tags to text elements. If you need to change the visual layout, you alter the style; you do not need to alter the actual content. That's what styles are all about.
They exist in office suits - and have existed since the dawn of humanity. The only problem is, they are hidden deep in the menus, they are presented in an obscure and non-intuitive manner and very few people really understand what they are and how to use them. End result, papers written by plebes worldwide look like a collective vomit of human unskill.
The RIGHT way to compose documents it to use LaTeX. Not only do you enjoy superb fonts, you also enjoy a mandatory separation of content from style, which forces you to work the correct way. Now, LaTeX is ultra hardcore. OK, so you can use LaTeX with a stylish frontend, like LyX. But even this kind of thing is too much for most people.
Another alternative, Kile:
End result, perfection:
But no - this is way too much for ordinary users. You can't expect people to use LaTeX. However, what you can do is create a predictive styling engine in the software code that will automatically create styles.
Example: Let's say a user selects a word and marks it bold. Then, the user selects another word and marks it bold. At this stage, the software should be smart enough to realize a dunce is working with the program. The engine should create a bold text class and keep it ready for any future use of bold. If and when the user decides that he should change all bold text to red bold text, a single change would affect all the rest of the text element with the same attributes.
What does font mean? What does format mean? What does indentation mean? I will tell you. For technical writers, these are perfectly legitimate tools of the trade. For people like you and me, well mostly people like you really, these are funny words. We can pronounce them and even use them now and then properly, but we do not really relate to them.
Why use the term font? Why not use text? After all, people apply fonts to text, right? For a normal person, the phrase text style is more meaningful than font.
This is just one innocent example. The entire collection requires a complete overhaul. While pivot tables, inline formatting, justification, embedded OLE, and whatnot sound posh and professional, they are twenty years and a whole sphere of reality away from being usable.
Normal people do not use 90% of stuff in the office suite menus - so why place them there in the first place? Furthermore, the fact 90% of the stuff goes wasted probably means the layout is wrong. If users had more accessibility to these items, they might appreciate their worth and actually use them.
Another example: header and footer. Why? Is this meant to be analogous to human body? Are we supposed to relate to these and somehow understand they identify separate areas of pages above and below the main text area? Instead, why not call them top-page and bottom-page decorations? Or something? And don't get me started on spreadsheet or presentation documents.
How about Format Painter? Is that supposed to sound friendly or intuitive? Format Painter. Repeat this a few times and see if it makes any sense. The broom-like brush-like icon is also a nice touch unto confusion. I'm not picking on Office 2007, although generally I like to do that, I'm just trying to emphasize the enormity of the task we're facing.
Oh, when something goes wrong ... Please. Armageddon has less verbosity:
There must be no error messages in office suites. Period. Users are not debug monkeys. They want to work on their stuff without interruptions. No cryptic messages, no excuses, no references to geek stuff online. It has to work.
I was considering doing a fun article on this, taking KOffice as the template and then making it even busier. But I decided to smother the parody and go for practicality instead.
The interface needs to be simple. Just the few simple items people need. Everything else can be done by geeks using their special software. All menu item names must be simple and human. The placement of items will probably go left and right of the main document area. The top and bottom parts should be free.
Styling, numbering, tagging, authoring, references, and other miscellaneous elements should all be automatically pre-formatted and added, but not necessarily displayed in the final version.
Presentation tools should have an automatic preview. Furthermore, animations and embedded audio and video should be severely limited, since most people assume glitter makes their crappy PowerPoint stuff worthy of looking at. Like writing applications, the styling would be automatic and transparent. The traditional slideshow separated into individual would-be slides should also be replaced with roll-over tabs.
When it comes to spreadsheet software, the current looks have to go. A dual-pane interface with the graphs on the right and data on the left sounds good to me. No more worksheets. Drag and drop is mandatory here, for making snazzy graphs in seconds. Lots of the boring stuff would also have to die, or at least be packaged separately in a special geek add-on that normal users don't need. The typical top-ten calculations and statistical predictions should all be automatically calculated.
These are just a few of the ideas I had. Nothing fancy, just early concepts of ungeekifying the horrible nerdonics of the office suite world. If browsers have taught us anything, it's how visual elements should be used and displayed. Rather than embedding office programs as cloud apps inside web pages, we should work on making office suites behave more like browsers. The one program that did try to follow this approach is IBM Lotus Symphony, although it is in a dire need of a facelift, too.
If you want to design something revolutionary, you may want to try a GUI sketching and prototyping software like Pencil - and send me your suggestions. Who knows, you may stumble onto something huge that no one has ever thought of before.
I'm still struggling with the final visual layout, so stay tuned for updates.
And so be it. We've seen what the office suite market has to offer. Frankly, it's all good, but not good enough. We're haunted by the ghosts of the past, the typewriters of the 80s and the engineers of the 70s, who used to rack up their telemetry readings on impact printers. Office suites are big, bloated, counterintuitive, and inefficient. Even the best and most modern products today fall short of the mark. A few manage a moment of brilliance, like Google Docs, Lotus Symphony and OOo4Kids, but then it goes bonkerous from there.
The most important change required in the modern office suite is the change of mind. We must get rid of the legacy monkey effect and work on making productivity software productive. We must focus on shedding away the 90% crud that pollutes the office programs, make them lean and mean, make them more smartly integrated with rich media, enforce mandatory styling, improve visibility and design.
Browser-like tabs, drag and drop features, instant graphics, all of these sound trivial considering what we have out there, but none of these features have yet reached the domain of the office suite. This has to change - and soon.
Well that's all. I've done my rant - and shared my sagacious ideas. If you feel like you have something useful to contribute, do feel free to mail me using your office suite mail program. We need to talk about those too, but that's a different article altogether.