Suite Utopia, or What ODF Needs to Change the Game

If you use ODF, you’re in the minority. If you use Linux, you’re in an even bigger minority. So if you’re like me and happen to be in these minorities, then you should know how hard it is to avoid Microsoft’s proprietary formats and fonts and you’ve likely also gotten complaints about your documents (whether it be that the recipient can’t open them or they just don’t render correcly in Office).

So what should we do about this?

ODF in the browser

A big step towards bringing ODF to the masses is putting an ODF viewer on every computer. Even though LibreOffice is free, most people won’t download a whole office suite just to open that one file that you sent them. They probably won’t even want to download a small viewer or an ODF converter, because they don’t feel safe installing unknown software, installation takes time, and, let’s face it, it’s just more crapware installed on the computer.

And so it’d be great if Chromium and Firefox (and other browsers) could open ODF files. It’d be preferable if it was built-in, but as this suggestion was rejected on the Chromium bug reporter (since ODF is much less common than PDF), the feature could be developed as an extension. I’m not sure if anyone is still actively working on it, though there was some discussion on both the TDF and the ODF mailing lists.

Fonts everywhere

Another step towards liberation from MS technology is liberation from the proprietary fonts they utilize (namely Times New Roman, Arial, and Courier). There are font banks that help us with that: Google Web Fonts, the League of Movable Type, and the Open Font Library. Now all that remains to be done is to integrate these with office suites. For example, a person who receives a document with a font he/she doesn’t have installed should be automatically asked to install that font by the office suite (if it can be found on one of these font banks).

ODF everywhere

But let’s not stop there. Let’s make it easy for any software developer to implement ODF support in his software. That’s just what WebODF, ODFKit, and Calligra Suite (to a level) do.

WebODF is a JavaScript library that allows you to add ODF support to your website, but also to desktop and mobile software. It paves the way for an open-source online office suite. There’s a pretty good video about it up on YouTube.

ODFKit is what came before WebODF was conceived. It was developed by the same person, Jos van den Oever, but it isn’t a JavaScript library and doesn’t use HTML and CSS to display documents. Rather, just like WebKit, it’s a layout engine for rendering ODF documents.

Calligra Suite is an office suite, just like LibreOffice. But unlike LibreOffice, Calligra Suite has a much more modular core and therefore it should be much easier to branch and move to other platforms. There’s a good post about it on Inge Wallin’s blog.

Citrus: Prominent styles

Picking up on the color code discussion from the last post, here’s a usability experiment that utilizes color codes for making styles more prominent and easier to click:

Besides making it easier to target the buttons for styles, it also separates two context bars from each other (like the “Text” and “Paragraph” bars in this mockup) and makes it apparent what type of thing is selected. It also makes it obvious what kind of application you’ve just launched, since Impress shows a Slide context bar by default and Draw shows a Canvas context bar. I haven’t had time to mock these up, though, so here is a barebones Slide context bar just to show what it would look like.

Citrus: Color codes

You might remember the hoopla around’s new mimetype icons, which, in contrast to previous versions, lacked color differentiation. The reasoning behind this was to gain independence from MS Office color coding (which actually most open-source office suites do not conform to) and to promote ODF as a whole with a unified brand. While the intentions were good, they made working with ODF files painful (because you had to squint in order to decipher the filetype), were adopted only by (so much for unification), and probably did more to drive people away from ODF than strengthen its brand. Lesson to learn: It’s never good to sacrifice on usability, especially when this is done only to differentiate yourself from a comptetitor.

This episode got me thinking though: Would usability improve if there was a general color scheme for all icons? And I tried it — there was even a short post about that on November 2010. I think it worked pretty well, and so I actually tried to make a more general color scheme. Here’s the result:

You can see traces of it in mockups, and there’ll be more along the way. It’s not very refined yet, and not well-tested — obviously, the lightness will need to change depending on context: if the background is black or white. But it does sort of conform to the current mime type color scheme of LibO (except for Base) and, if anyone wants to implement it, it does have potential to become a standard color scheme.

What do you think?