Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Replacing on-line Office Suites

France and I hear Germany have banned Google & Microsoft on-line office suites from schools, admittedly over privacy concerns but there are other reasons to move away from them  which raises the question of what will replace them?

There are open source office alternatives, more on them below but first a bit of history.

Visicalc, the first microcomputer based spreadsheet, ran on an Apple II with 32 Kilobytes of memory!

Wordstar, an early microcomputer based word processor, ran on CP/M-80 computers which had a maximum of 64 Kilobytes of memory! 

In 1984 there were Wysiwyg spreadsheet & word processor editors on the original 128K Apple Macintosh. Microsoft released Excel and Word, originally running on fairly small computers and Windows since the lat 1980s. Other parts of the suite have been developed since.

Star Office, the ancestor of LibreOffice, was first released in 1985 as separate programs.

Initially the integration between different parts of the same system were clunky to the point of being almost unworkable. Various competitors who offered better integration of the different parts of their office suites came and went.

In 1987 Microsoft introduced Dynamic Data Exchange  which gave rise to OLE. These allowed a degree of integration. 

Lotus 1-2-3 was the first time I saw graphs produced on the fly in a spreadsheet. For me the killer feature of Excel was in the late 1990s when pivot tables were introduced.  

Disclaimer: I currently use #LibreOffice, #GoogleWorkspace and occasionally #Gnumeric but as a stand-alone spreadsheet. I haven't used #MicrosoftOffice365 . The following only really applies to the products I currently use, references to Microsoft products refer to products I was using around 2017..

When a start a new document, the first thing I have to do is state what I am creating: Spreadsheet, Text (Word processor), Presentation, etc. For locally hosted files, the files created by this choice different file extensions, and so forth.  for  Google Workspace they are different in my remote directory display.

Each document type differs in how it behaves while editing. One thing I found frustrating with Microsoft Office was while I could embed an Excel table in a Word Document, it looked and behaved differently to a native word document table. Google Documents do make embedded sheets look like documents and give the option to manually update the linked data from the source. This option seems to vanish if I do anything as simple as changing formatting. LibreOffice may contain something similar to Word as the documentation says it supports OLE. My brief experiments with it have not been encouraging, I tend to end up with a section of the document that looks like a spreadsheet. Again I end up with a late 1990s feel from these tools.

As I don't use them (I don't have any useful drawing skills) I'm not going to comment on drawing parts of the tools, but the slideshow tools remind me of 2018 Powerpoint. I have to confess I don't try hotlinking into these, I assume it would work in a manner similar to the text editors.

French & German schools are going to need to find replacements for the #Google & #Microsoft products. Something that does conform to the European data privacy rules. Something that is accessed through a web server and permits collaboration, including multiple users simultaneously editing the same document. History is littered with alternative office suites that have gone out of business. If it's an on-line service, what happens to the user's data? Do students lose a year's work? The way around this is to have self hosted, preferably open source (so a 3rd party can be engaged to keep it running) solutions.  Looking around at the open source alternatives I'm not seeing options that go beyond the LibreOffice/Microsoft/Google models. It would be a shame if the migration that must happen was simply to a clone of the existing services.

Here's a challenge. I'd like a Free (as in speech)/Open Source office suite that doesn't require me to distinguish at the document level between Text, Spreadsheet, Drawing, Presentation. Everything's just a document. If I want to insert a spreadsheet in a text document, I create a table & start typing values & formulae which look and feel like the rest of the document. Ditto adding other things, such as database queries.  Presentations are just documents formatted to have pages that are wider than high.  Master pages should be available in text & spreadsheets too for the user to add when they make sense.

Hot linking should remain available. It's amazingly common to require a small section of a larger spreadsheet in a document. Database queries are also naturally dynamic.

So what's out there and can we convince schools to adopt them?

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