LibreOffice 7.0 Released!

Today, August 5, 2020, we saw the announcement that LibreOffice 7.0 is now released for all platforms, though it may take a few days to roll out, and for those of us on Linux platforms it may be a while longer before it shows up in our repos. Nevertheless, this is an exciting milestone release. I personally tend to lag a bit in getting new releases because I use Kubuntu LTS releases, and those only update slowly. So right now I am using LibreOffice 6.0 from 2018 on my Kubuntu 18.04 release. I expect that I will be offered a chance to upgrade my Kubuntu version pretty soon since that typically happens after the first major update, and that is scheduled for the base Ubuntu platform tomorrow (August 6), and it may take a few days for Kubuntu to follow suit. But we can get some ideas of the new LibreOffice release from the press release, and here are some of the major points of interest.

ODF 1.3

The new version of LibreOffice includes support for ODF 1.3. ODF stands for Open Document Format, and it specifies an XML-based file format for all of the documents containing text, spreadsheets, charts, and graphical elements. What an XML-based file format means is that what looks like a single file containing your document, spreadsheet, etc. is actually a container, and you can see this by opening the document with a utility like Ark or some other zipping/unzipping utility. I did this with a Writer document, and had this result.:

LibreOffice Writer file opened in Ark

So my XML-based file is 7 files at the top level, and 6 directories with sub-directories and files inside them as well.

ODF1.3 was approved by the Open Document Foundation as an OASIS specification. OASIS is the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, which began as SGML Open in 1993. It exists to promote the development. convergence, and adoption of open standards for security, Internet of Things, energy, content technologies, emergency management, and other areas. So OASIS is much broader than just office software, but it is an important body for promoting open standards.

Some of the features of the ODF1.3 specification are:

  • Digital signatures for documents and OpenPGP-based encryption of XML documents.
  • Improvements in Change tracking.
  • Improvements in the description of elements in first pages, text, numbers and charts.

Skia graphics library

The Skia graphics library is an open-source 2-D graphics library that provides a common set of APIs that work across a variety of platforms. It is the graphics engine for Chrome, Chrome OS, Android, Flutter, Firefox, and Firefox OS, among others. It is sponsored by Google, which is the lead developer, but is licensed under the BSD Free Software License. It is available on platforms such as:

  • Windows 7, 8, 8.1, 10
  • macOS 10.10.5 or later
  • iOS 8 or later
  • Android 4.1 (JellyBean) or later
  • Ubuntu 14.04+, Debian 8+, openSUSE 13.3+, or Fedora Linux 24+

Skia can be used for drawing text, shapes, and images, and is now the default on Windows for faster performance. The implementation in LibreOffice is due to sponsorship from AMD.

Vulkan API

The other big graphics news is that the Vulkan API is supported. Vulkan is an alternative to other graphics APIs such as DirectX and OpenGL. It offers high-performance 3-D graphics with low overhead and supports better parallelization on multiple cores.

So between Skia and Vulkan, some pretty good graphics improvements for both 2-D and 3-D graphics.

Compatibility improvements

It is no secret that Microsoft Office is the largest player in the Office space, and interoperability is key. I have mostly not had any problems for sometime now moving between MS Office and LibreOffice, but there are always corner cases where things can get ugly. The latest LibreOffice handles things even better. If you want to save a Writer document in the Microsoft Docx format, you can now save in native 2013, 2016, and 2019 modes, whereas previously you were restricted to a 2017 compatibility mode. In Calc, you can export to Excel with sheet names longer than 31 characters now. And the Powerpoint Import and Export filters were improved as well.

LibreOffice is really the only choice if you want interoperability across platforms and applications. They are not trying to lock you in, unlike Microsoft.

Summary of Other New Features

GENERAL

  • New icon theme, the default on macOS: Sukapura
  • New shapes galleries: arrows, diagrams, icons and more…
  • Glow and soft edge effects for objects

WRITER

  • Navigator is easier to use, with more context menus
  • Semi-transparent text is now supported
  • Bookmarks can now be displayed in-line in text
  • Padded numbering in lists, for consistency
  • Better handling of quotation marks and apostrophes

CALC

  • New functions for non-volatile random number generation
  • Keyboard shortcut added for autosum. Autosum is probably the single most used function in spreadsheets, so this is a welcome development.

IMPRESS & DRAW

  • Semi-transparent text is supported here too
  • Subscripts now return to the default of 8%
  • PDFs larger than 500 cm can now be generated

Who to thank

This new release of LibreOffice contains work from a number of companies. 74% of the commits come from companies on the Advisory Board, of whom Red Hat may be the best known, but also heavily involved were Collabora and CIB Software. I mention these companies because they are great examples of how an ecosystem can grow in open source. Both of these companies built a business around LibreOffice technology and both are giving back and helping it grow. Collabora is the home of Michael Meeks, and any long-time followers of LibreOffice should recognize him as a major developer in this project. Now he is the Managing Director of Collabora, and they are making money by selling a service, LibreOffice in the cloud.

CIB Software is located in Munich, and provides integrated document management solutions that include LibreOffice. And I find it interesting that Munich has reversed course yet again and is now planning to move back to open source software. The coalition agreement between the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party in Munich was finalized in May and says: “We will adhere to the principle of ‘public money, public code’. That means that as long as there is no confidential or personal data involved, the source code of the city’s software will also be made public.” And since the coalition should be in power until 2026, there is a good chance for significant progress there. And then in June Hamburg joined the movement to open source as well, adding to a growing movement in German cities and states.

Of course, companies are not the only supporters. 26% of commits came from individuals. And even if you are not a coder, there are ways you can help. I have also participated in the documentation area (writing, proof-reading, updating, etc.), and I know they have volunteers helping with publicity. Personally, every time I download a new version of LibreOffice I donate $10 to the Open Document Foundation, which sponsors LibreOffice development. I mean, ten bucks for a full-featured office suite? That has to be the deal of the century, right? So I encourage everyone else to join me in this.

Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!

LibreOffice Tutorials Offered

I have received a very generous offer from Bernard J. Poole, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He has a series of LibreOffice Tutorials and has asked me to publicize that they are available free of charge to all of our LibreOffice fans here and on Hacker Public Radio. You can find his tutorials on his web site at http://www.pitt.edu/~poole/. He is particularly aiming his tutorials at educators who might use LibreOffice in the classroom.

Please note that these files are available for free, but he does ask that you let him know if you are interested in using his tutorials, particularly in the classroom. And there are some LibreOffice files that accompany the tutorials which are available by writing to him.

Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!

Turning Off Comments

I wish I didn’t have to do this, but the fact is that virtually every comment that is submitted on my site is spam. Until now I have manually screened every comment, but it is taking up more time as the volume in increases. And I get so few legitimate comments that it does not seem worth the effort. So if you are a real person, you can probably figure out how to contact me. But I am now working to disable comments everywhere on my site.

Background to the LibreOffice series

Ken Fallon of Hacker Public Radio (where my audio series airs) asked me to do a show on the background and workflow of my LibreOffice series, and that seems like a fun idea, so here goes.

My Background

For me, the prime motivation is figuring out how things work and then explaining them to others. I started fairly young as a voracious reader (still am), and I devoured books by Isaac Asimov. These included his science fiction novels (I still re-read them every few years), but also his many more numerous non-fiction books. He tells how he responded to the Sputnik launch by deciding to do everything he could to improve science education. What I really liked was his ability to take any topic and explain it in a way that made sense, and I rather hope that some of then rubbed off on me. I leave it to you to decide how well I manage that, though.

In any case I think it set me on a certain path. I recall working in Finance early in my career and having people say I really should be as teacher. And in due course that is what I set out to do. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, and then became an Assistant Professor of Economics at Concordia University. I mostly enjoyed teaching, though the paperwork is something I am glad to rid of. And it did seem like I had a certain talent for it. But while I was pursuing my career as an Economics professor the Internet and the computing revolution were happening, and I got involved in it at my school. My initial focus was on how I could use this technology to improve my teaching (and more importantly, to improve my students’ learning), but I have to say the technology itself kind of sucked me in. I’m sure any geek will understand.

One of the great benefits of my career in teaching is learning how to learn. And a key lesson is that the only way to really learn a subject is to prepare to teach it to someone else. I can even recall being given a class to teach in a subject I did not in the least understand beforehand, but I worked hard and it became a regular part of my load. There is a certain art to learning how to teach something, where you need to break it down and anticipate where the student will have problems. And no matter how detailed you think you have been in giving instructions or explanations, students will still find a way to misunderstand.

I was successful in using computer technology to improve what I did. I taught an Applied Statistics class in the Business Program where I moved the entire class to the computer lab and did everything on computers, for instance. I also developed Web Sites for all of my classes, and saw one of them get picked up by the World Classroom (Economic Geography). And I got ahead of all of my colleagues in doing this, so one day the Academic Dean asked me to take on the role of Faculty Development Officer to focus on helping my colleagues use computer technology. And this eventually lead to me moving into the IT Department and taking on all of the training, including staff.

I still taught classes, though, and I was asked to develop a 6 week seminar in computer technology for our degree completion program. This was aimed at adults with about half of the bachelors degree completed who had stopped to deal with job, family, or other issues, and who now needed to finish their degrees. We required them to demonstrate computer proficiency, and some did by taking a test. But my seminar was the alternative. If they took it and passed, that satisfied the requirement. And the heart of my seminar was Microsoft Office 97 (at the time, this was state-of-the-art <g>), and Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access each got a 3-hour session, with required projects to be handed in using them. This is where I began to formally put together just how you should use each program. I got very good reactions from the students that showed that for most of them this was valuable information they could put to good use. Many of them had put off taking the seminar as long as they could, but after taking it, they complained that they hadn’t had this information earlier to help them with their schoolwork.

Later I got asked to do training for other groups, using different software, like WordPerfect office, and that is when I discovered that all of these programs worked about the same way. If someone wanted me to do training I wold just ask them to give me the software, and in a day or two I could adapt my training materials to the particular software they used. It really meant looking to find which menu hid the feature that I already knew would have to be there. And then I got a request from a teacher in a Lutheran parochial school which did not have much money. She wanted to know about alternatives because Microsoft Office was beyond their budget. And I had just purchased a copy of Star Office to check it out, and while this was a commercial product at the time, it was 1) developed specifically to support schools; and 2) very generously licensed. As I recall for about $500 we could site-license it for the entire school, students, staff, and faculty, and everyone could also install it on their home computer for no additional charge.

Of course, Star Office was later purchased by Sun Microsystems and turned into the open source program OpenOffice.org, and then when Sun was bought by Oracle, it forked and became LibreOffice. And while I use Microsoft Office at work, I use LibreOffice at home, and as a supported of free software I promote it, including doing tutorials on Hacker Public Radio.

BTW, I have since moved on from teaching. No money in it.<g>

Workflow and Process

The starting point for me is research. Of course the LibreOffice Documentation Site is important (there are very detailed guides for each of the components), as is the Document Foundation Wiki. There is the Ask LibreOffice site.  There is also an excellent mailing list called Users. And I also look for articles on the Web. One person I pay close attention to is Bruce Byfield, who is really an expert on LibreOffice, and who is working on a book right now that will focus on Styles and Templates. He writes for a number of publications, so the best way to find his stuff is to follow him on Google+, or do a search on “Bruce Byfield LibreOffice” to get plenty of articles. I will of course be buying his book as soon as it comes out. When I find something that catches my eye, I usually save it in Evernote, which I happen to like enough to get a Pro account. And I want to mention a very detailed and excellent series of articles in Full Circle Magazine written by Elmer Perry. Full Circle is a free electronic magazine you can download. I have written for them before, and was initially considering doing something on LibreOffice, but Elmer’s series is pretty darned good and I don’t know that I could add enough to make it worthwhile.

One of the things I learned from teaching is the importance of being systematic and logical, in particular by writing down the things I need to cover. If I were to just “wing it” everything would be disorganized and out-of-order, even if I know my stuff. By writing everything down first, I can easily fix those “Wait, I forgot a step back there” items that would otherwise mess up my presentation. So step one for me is to always write out, with screen shots, each tutorial, which is then posted to this Web site. This can take me anywhere from a few hours to most of the day. In doing this I am trying to make sure I get everything exactly correct. Frequently I experiment with options to understand exactly what they do. While I rely on the documentation a good deal, in some ways it falls short of what I want to do in explaining things, and that means a lot of experimentation. Only when I have the written version in final form do I move on to recording the audio.

My recording is fairly straightforward. I know Ken always says that audio quality is not the first concern for Hacker Public Radio, but I did invest in a Blue Snowball USB microphone which I know cost me less than US$100. Other than that, I use Audacity on my Kubuntu box to do the recording, and that works fine for me. I will generally boost the volume slightly after I record, but I don’t do any other processing, and so far the audio quality seems to be fine. I export to FLAC at the highest quality setting so that I can give HPR the best starting point. Then I add the tags, work on the Show notes, and FTP the files to the HPR server.

I hope this is of some interest to Ken and the others who seem to be following my series.

LibreOffice at Ohio LinuxFest 2013

I am very excited about an opportunity to teach LibreOffice at Ohio LinuxFest in September. OLF has done something really great, and that is to create a track aimed specifically to new users of Linux, called the Meet the Penguin track, and I have been selected to be a part of it. The idea is to demonstrate to new users just what free software can do. As you know if you have used LibreOffice or have followed my series of posts (and/or the Hacker Public Radio podcasts), LibreOffice is a full-featured office productivity solution that matches in general what Microsoft Office can do. I think if more people were aware of the capabilities this suite has, they would be happy to use it and get off the treadmill of expensive upgrades (now turning into expensive annual subscriptions) that Microsoft Office demands of its users.

If you would like to be a part of the fun, just register for Ohio LinuxFest at http://www.ohiolinux.org/registration. Enthusiast registration is free if you pre-register ($5 at the door for walk-ins), so it is quite affordable. I hope to see many of you there!