Re: Spinoff: Using Linux for work?

Subject: Re: Spinoff: Using Linux for work?
From: Siliconwriter <siliconwriter -at- comcast -dot- net>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 16 Sep 2005 22:49:56 -0700

On Sep 16, 2005, at 2:41 PM, Bruce Byfield wrote:

don't those who are curious about what open source tools they could use
as tech-writers, or how they could get involved in open source projects
post questions directly to the list?

Great idea, Bruce. Let me start.

I had a meeting with my boss/client today. I have persuaded him to
move our software documentation from MS Word to I
demonstrated to him the usefulness of having XML compliant word processing
which is compatible with the XML files generated by doxygen, which is used
by our developers. Since I already marshaled my arguments for him, here they
are for you. Note that most of these comments pertain to Writer, the word processor. also includes a database
program, presentation program, drawing program, spreadsheet program, and for
all I know mixes daiquiris.

1. Compatibility: XML files are "generic" files that can be read by a wide
variety of editors, even by text editors if necessary. We are no longer
directly reliant on Microsoft's products and are not at the mercy of their
upgrades (a major bugaboo of my boss). Moreover, our software developers
running Linux, our engineers using Windows, and this technical writer using
Mac can all use the same free software.

2. Legacy: Future technical writers may or may not be able to read old Word
files (I recalled the Word 4.5-to-Word 5 upgrade debacle), but files saved
in XML format will, as I said, be readable to text editors. Thus future
writers will have access to legacy documents as needed. Just to be sure, I
told him I would save the final documentation as .rtf, .doc, .xml and .PDF
files. (He's a belt-and-suspenders kinda guy.) I assured him that exports to all these file formats; while Microsoft says Word
can export to XML, I have not been able to do so.

5. No, 3. Exportability. My client is primarily concerned with the ability
of any editor to turn out PDFs. I demonstrated to him's PDF
creation abilities and he was satisfied.

4. Wide deployment. Our software developers use open source software to
write code for Linux boxes. They like and are amenable to
trying it out in lieu of MS Word, thus potentially saving the company big
bucks in future upgrades.

5. Conditional text. Not that my client cared, but I like conditional text
and was tired of jerry-rigging a way to do it in Word. With a new addition
to our product line coming out, I really needed a way to incorporate
conditional text into our SDK. supports conditional text.

6. Desktop publishing: exports XML files which can be
imported into Adobe InDesign more readily than Word files. Our Marketing
department is happy with this. I don't use InDesign, but I suspect this
feature may come in handy in future.

7. Text frames. Not something I use much, but Marketing sometimes asks for
my help with newsletters, and the ability to "jump" to a different page from
a text frame is very useful. Marketing is happy.

8. Style Nazi. I am a firm believer in style sheets, and OpenOffice appears,
as of now, to strongly enforce styles. I have only used the program for a
few weeks, but so far it is not showing Word's tendency to let me easily
(and inadvertently) override text formatted with a style sheet. This is a
very important feature for me.

9. Tool bars are better arranged, easy to customize. In fact, the whole
interface is easy to customize.

10. Good: embedded help. Bad: silly substitute for Clippy.

11.'s Calc program, a substitute for Excel, works just fine
importing and exporting .xls spreadsheets. I imported a multi-page workbook
with all functions, external and internal links, and preferences intact. The
only thing that got "lost in translation" was a drawn object, which was
easily replaced with OpenOffice's drawing features.

12. Excellent drag-and-drop capability. I pulled a .jpg into a document by
clicking and dragging, as easily as I did in Word.

13. Superior thesaurus. Not much use to me as a technical writer, but as a
novelist it is an essential tool. Much better than the thesauri available in
other word processing programs. I've already converted my current novel into

Now for the disadvantages:

1. No variables. Okay, not many variables. I used variables as a substitute
for conditional text in several documents, and when I imported/converted
those documents all but one of the variables disappeared. OpenOffice then
substituted that single variable's content for ALL the other variables it
did not import. Thus when a phrase should have read " to program
Product A..." it converted to " to program CompanyName...". Bad juju.
Took me a while to fix. There seems to be a limit of only four user- defined
variables available in OpenOffice; since I have seven that's going to make a
headache for me. Not a big one, however, and not a show-stopper. If you have
a document with LOTS of variables, this might be.

2. Very difficult to puzzle out how to format indices, tables of contents,
and other generated lists. I've been working on this for two or three days
now. The program definitely needs work in this area. It is, indeed, possible
to format your index into a very professional looking format, but learning
how is not very easy.

3. Tables are more difficult to devise and format. It's not a big headache,
just not intuitively obvious how to do it.

4. See Clippy above. In the Mac version, there's an annoying little help
window that pops up sometimes in the lower right corner. I haven't seen it
in the Windows version yet.

5. Slightly sluggish performance, primarily in saving documents. The 105
page user guide took 20 seconds to save; the 350 page novel took 45 seconds.
Doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. When sending files to the printer,
there was a noticeable delay that locked up the Windows computer when
sending to a networked printer. No such delay was apparent on the Mac with a
networked printer. That may be a machine dependent glitch as the Mac is the
more powerful machine.

6. For Mac users only: There is no "native" MacOS version of
currently available. However, I am running on X11 on MacOS
10.4 ("Tiger") on a PowerMac G4 and PowerBook G4, and am having no
difficulties. If you are not comfortable using UNIX or X11, however, this
may not be a good program for you to use. There is supposedly a native
MacOS/Carbon version in the works, so you might want to wait for it to come
out if you're really UNIX-phobic. I have not tested on Linux
or UNIX yet, but the Windows XP version I am also using runs with no problem
other than the slight performance issues discussed above.

I should make it clear that so far I have used the word processing program,
Writer, extensively. I have used the spreadsheet program occasionally. I
have not used the presentation, database, drawing or math programs at all. I
have no feedback on them, but will post it if and when I try them out.

Hope this helps,
Sarah Stegall


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Re: Spinoff: Using Linux for work?: From: Bruce Byfield

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