NeoOffice: Look and Feel

I’ve heard about the project known as OpenOffice on many occasions as a viable alternative to Microsoft Office, and I was pleased to find a Macintosh version of the office suite on the project’s website. What did not please me was the X11 requirement for the OS X version. Fortunately, it was not long before I discovered a project called NeoOffice written in a combination of Cocoa, Carbon, and Java. It’s based on the OpenOffice 2.0 code base but runs natively in the OS X aqua environment.

Over the course of a few posts, I’m going to be looking at the text editor, NeoOffice Writer, and the presentation module, NeoOffice Impress, to see how they compare to Microsoft Word 2004 and Microsoft PowerPoint 2004 in daily use. These articles are not going to be deeply technical or philosophical. They are just going to reflect my thoughts and feelings as I take the software through some paces.

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The look-and-feel of applications is pretty important to the Mac experience. Well designed Macintosh applications have a polish to the user interface that is seldom present on other platforms. Therefore, if NeoOffice is going to gain a healthy following among the Mac-faithful, it is important that it have the Macintosh feel correct. This aspect may be somewhat abstract and trivial to alpha-geeks and power users, but the user experience cannot be ignored when developing an application for the Mac.

Saying this, how does NeoOffice do? Put simply, I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse – much worse.

Upon launch, I found the toolbars to be immediately distracting. The icons in them were spartan at best, and it really looked like a stereotypical open source project. Toolbars are nearly indispensable in office appications, so this was a difficult flaw to overlook.

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The default toolbar appearance in NeoOffice Writer

Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to figure out that you could change the toolbar’s appearance within the preferences. Also a program called Iconic allowed me to install additional sets. Here are some variations for the toolbar:

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The Industrial style

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The Crystal style

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The Akua style

The default style would be at home on Windows 95. Industrial looks very GNOME to me while Crystal makes me think of Windows XP. I bet you can guess which of these icon sets I’m using right now in NeoOffice. (Hint: It’s phonetically identical to “aqua.”) Fortunately, some small changes in the preferences can really lead to a more pleasant visual experience with NeoOffice.

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Before & After!

Unfortunately, even after some tweaking, a few elements still seem very out-of-place. Many small widgets in the interface lack the Aqua look-and-feel emulated by the rest of the program. Some text looks incorrectly placed in tabs, and the floating toolbars are boxy and Windows-esque (with the window controls on the wrong side of the toolbar).

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Another Aqua discrepancy I noticed was in the window controls of the main application. In most OS X applications, if you have unsaved changes in the documents, the red “close window” control has a dimple in it. Otherwise it is smooth as the other buttons. In NeoOffice, the red “close” button is smooth whether your document has unsaved changes or not.

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Pages shows the document has unsaved changes. NeoOffice does not.

Despite these shortcomings, NeoOffice does integrate well with Mac OS X in some key areas, including the print, save, and open dialog boxes/sheets. The application uses the standard controls for printing and saving that you would find in any native OS X application. This is a nice touch of familiarity in the application, and it keeps the user experience in these areas consistent with what you would expect for a Mac application.

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Here are a couple native dialogs in NeoOffice.

Overall, NeoOffice succeeds in almost feeling like a native Mac application, and, when compared to the X11 version of OpenOffice, that is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Some minor issues hold the product back from really creating an immersive Macintosh experience, but it is important to remember that this product is a work in progress. It is only consistently developed by three guys who are (for all intents and purposes) unfunded. NeoOffice 2 is the product of hard work and dedication. Yes, the interface has some inconsistencies and could use improvement, but it is a solid starting point.

In their wiki, the NeoOffice team states (regarding the use of Java): “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then to the end user it’s a duck, and end users have made it pretty clear they want a duck; whether the duck drinks hot chocolate or coffee is irrelevant.” Right now, I can tell that the duck is drinking coffee even without diving into the documentation. However, at this rate, it won’t be long until NeoOffice can seamlessly blend in with my other Macintosh applications.

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