Upgrading Away From Office Suites
Perusing the open source news today I came across this piece by “DarkDuck” titled "Top 5 Free Suites to Replace Microsoft Office”. It strikes me as odd that still, towards the end of 2012, the open source community is still interested in replacing the bloated corpse of Microsoft Office. In my mind, we now have so many other options available.
To understand the mindset of Office, we have to understand where we were decades ago. Office, and it’s powerhouses Word and Excel, were written when most important documents were going to be printed out on paper and filed away somewhere. Simple text typeset in a basic format is not something that needs a word processor, it only needs somewhere to type. Gigantic software suites with more features and options than you can use are not the Unix way; the open source community can and has done better. HTML is the best document choice due to the growing ubiquity of the cloud, and access to the web from multiple portable devices. Allow me to present an alternative to the DarkDuck alternative.
DarkDuck lists Google Docs (not really “free” as we know it, but it is without financial cost to use), OpenOffice, LibreOffice (an OpenOffice derivative), NeoOffice (an OpenOffice derivative), and KOffice (being morphed into the Calligra Suite). Each of these bundles includes at least a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation application, and the OO.org bundles include other applications for mathematics and databases. For the sake of brevity let’s look at the top three.
Word processing is subtly different from text editing. Text editing concerns you with writing words, sentences, and paragraphs. Word processing adds to the basic concerns of writing and includes document layout; how will the finished product look? Writing this way is distracting, and from a workflow perspective layout should be separate from writing. Enter Markdown. Markdown allows you to write in a very basic syntax to define how you want your final document to look in a declarative manner, without resorting to a word processor. Markdown is simple, portable, and converts directly to HTML, the most popular document format on Earth. If a final printable document is what is needed, MultiMarkdown combines with LaTeX to create professional looking documents ready to be emailed or printed. All with a simple text editor with no fuss.
If you need to give a presentation, Google’s slides.js and HTML5 have you covered. Slides.js gives you smooth animations between slides, and a simple HTML template to build your presentation with. I used it to present my Masters thesis this past Spring, and it worked great.
The syntax looks like this:
Capstone Project Presentation
Iowa State University
April 14, 2012
Milestone One: The Idea
The Field of Systems Administration
An example of a finished slide deck can be seen here. The best part is, the entire presentation can be kept in a single HTML file. If you have charts, images, or other media to embed in your presentation, all the basic HTML tags can be used.
This one can be a bit more difficult, because the tools that are required to wrangle numbers and large data sets are still a bit complex. As an example, I’ve recently been using Python and Gnuplot to dive into web logs containing millions of lines and gigabytes of data. The upside is that the learning curve, while initially steep, levels off at a point, while the complexity and volume of the data you can manage with the tools keeps climbing. In this case the best I can say is that time spent investing in your own knowledge base is never wasted, and if you are investing time learning how to manage data, you are essentially leveling up.
It is understandable, to a point, why the popularity of office suites continues. Sometimes you just need to get something done quickly, and do not have the time to learn a new tool. However, once you do spend that time, the speed and efficiency of your work continues to grow, well past where you would have been before.