Calligra Suite – ambitious but uneven office and productivity tools

Calliga_logoI spent a few days playing with the Calligra Suite and am very impressed with the variety of its modules. It’s one of the most ambitious open-source applications I’ve seen.

It is a project of KDE and has Windows, tablet and phone versions but I only tested the Linux version.

As expected, it offers the standard modules: word processor (“Writer”); spreadsheet (“Sheets”); database (“Kexi”); and presentation (“Stage”), compatible with the OpenOffice file standard.

What makes Calligra so impressive is the other modules it offers: mind mapping (“Braindump”); flowchart/diagramming (“Flow”); vector drawing (“Karbon”); project management (“Plan”); paint (“Krita”); and eBook composer (“Author”).

calligre_modules

I played with the modules that might be useful in a library setting. My impression varied a lot depending on the module. One module worked very well, a couple were OK and others are just not ready.

Writer requires a bit of a learning curve because it’s organized around frames, somewhat like Framemaker. (Calligra calls them “shapes”) It’s not difficult but requires un-learning MS Word or LibreOffice Writer. Shapes/frames allows a higher level of formatting control which I appreciate. I find graphics in MS Word extremely frustrating. Mixing text and graphics is almost effortless in Calligra Writer.

Calligra Writer imports and exports to the standard formats and directly imports (only) from Google Docs. This worked fine with a relatively simple document.

But other things don’t work so well. Writer behaved erratically at times, even considering my inexperience with the product. It crashed once. I was excited to see that Writer exports to both ePub and .mobi (Kindle) but I was disappointed with the results.

My suggestion to the developers: Writer should be positioned as a desktop publishing program and Calligra should add a lightweight, super-easy, word-processor. Just the basics. This would give users a less-painful way to start using Calligra. The suite could also use Dreamweaver-type web authoring module.

I was excited to try the Author module which is designed to create ebooks and textbooks. The world needs an ebook authoring program where a single master document can be exported to multiple common formats (ePub,kindle,html,PDF,doc,etc) with a click or two. I was motivated enough to endure about four or five crashes, when one crash is too many. The web site acknowledges that Author is an early release.

Sheets was the same — it seems more developed but had erratic behavior and a crash. Braindump worked well-enough but wasn’t what I need in a mind-mapping program. Mostly it’s just a drawing program when I need a program that guides thinking and adds structure to brainstorming. It does use an interesting-but-initially-confusing, expanding “white board” approach.

Krita — the stand-out in the suite

Calligra_krita_example_womanAfter all that, the Krita paint program was a delight! It’s the one module that I will keep using. You may consider installing this as a stand-alone program.

It worked perfectly with my drawing tablet, never crashed and the features were intuitive.   I’ll write a longer review after I use it more.

See the Krita website for some impressive examples of what can be done with this module.  The site includes some interesting interviews with artists using Krita.

Conclusion – an A for effort

I didn’t play much with all the other modules but I doubt my impression of Calligra would change — it’s not ready for work or school. If you use it, consider yourself a beta user. This may not be true for all the modules (like Krita) but others are just not ready.  By the way, being a beta user is good citizenship in the open source community.

That being said, I want to affirm the Calligra development team. This project has impressive potential and should be developed to maturity. I’ll be checking back!


Tool: Caligra Suite 2.6
Description: office and productivity suite
License: GPL
Alternatives: LibreOffice, Sigil, GIMP, Inkscape, more
Rating: mostly not useful.

AbiWord – the more-daring, skinny little sister of LibreOffice Writer.

AbiWord_logo I want to like AbiWord, I really do. I am happy that it exists — giving LibreOffice a little competition in the open-source world. I like that it tries things that other word processors don’t.

It has a number of features making it theoretically better than LibreOffice but I have never gotten AbiWord to work properly — at least not well enough to be suitable for a work environment.

This is unfortunate because AbiWord has some great things going for it.

Lightweight

Even though AbiWord has been around a long time (since 1998) it has not suffered much from blaot. AbiWord is good for older computers and often comes bundled with lightweight versions of Linux instead of LibreOffice.

I always keep it installed because it doesn’t take up much disk space. If LibreOffice or MS Word feel sluggish on your aging computer, AbiWord might feel zippy.

Exporting documents to other formats.

It offers more native exporting features than even some commercial products. When my Palm Pilot was my primary eBook reader, I appreciated AbiWord’s native PalmDoc export abilities. This feature worked so well that, in some ways, I still miss my Palm for reading on-the-run.

These days, AbiWord is one of the few word processors that exports natively to ePub. I got so excited about this feature that I spent about two days trying to get it to work. I finally gave up and went back to using Sigil. I don’t mind a little learning curve but this is just too much.

Even so, if you have a specific need to export to — let’s say — MapInfo Interchange Format then AbiWord might be very useful for you.

Collaboration tools

abicollab_logoAbiWord also integrated collaboration tools which could be very useful. AbiWord integrates very well with the free AbiCollab document server. While I have not used this service extensively, it worked flawlessly in my testing.

One immediate advantage of using AbiWord for collaboration is that you can avoid all the advertisements and other distractions of the Internet. You will need to go to AbiCollab to set up your account and to manage your groups of collaborators but, after that, you can just stay within AbiWord.

A less obvious advantage of using AbiWord for collaboration is security. Unlike, let’s say, Google Docs, AbiWord allows you to keep your documents on your school’s intranet or your own private server. Your local intranet would be especially private and suitable for working on sensitive issues like policies or students which you would not want on the open Internet.

(Click here for a side-note about security.)

RDF – so bleeding edge, I don’t understand it

AbiWord also actively supports Resource Description Framework (RDF) which, to be honest, I barely understand even though I spent some time trying. My impression is that RDF is the next level of stylesheets. Anyway, if you understand RDF, then you may be interested in AbiWord.

So, I give AbiWord an enthusiastic “possibly useful” recommendation. I would also encourage you download and use AbiWord just to support this ambitious project.

 


Tool: AbiWord
Description: a lightweight, stand-alone word processor with powerful export and collaboration features
License: GNU (free and open source)
Rating: possibly useful

dotEPUB – cloud-based ebook creation

dotEPUB_logo

  dotEPUB is “software in the cloud” that I have become totally dependent on for my personal ebook reading.

With just a click-or-two, it turns a web article into an ePub for use on my ebook reader. I don’t like reading long articles on my computer, so easily moving them to my ebook reader is very handy.

(Click here for a side-note about an overlooked use of ebook readers.)

dotEPUB has several tools that integrate with your browser to convert an web page into a ePub or a mobi (Kindle) file. dotEPUB works well with most web pages and is flawless with pages that have a “print” feature.

The ePub created by dotEPUB is usually fine, as is, but if you want to tweak or annotate it, you can open the ePub file with Sigil and edit it from there.

I use dotEPUB’s javascript “bookmarklet” that sits on the web browser’s bookmark toolbar. When you get to a web page you want to read later, it’s as simple as clicking the bookmark and the rest of the process is automated. When the ePub has been created and saved, you transfer the file to your ebook reader as you usually would (USB cable, email, etc).

The site has number of other tools which I have not used. A possibly useful tool is a an ePub creation button you can add to your website or WordPress blog. It also as tools for iPads.

dotEPUB Creator Another is the web-based “Creator” which creates a formatted ePub using a simplified mark-up language similar to that of a wiki. No software to install.


 Tool: dotEPUB

 Description: cloud-based tool for ePub creation

 License: free to use

 Alternatives: Sigil, Calibre

 Rating: very useful

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Sigil – for ePub creation

Sigil logoWhile ePubs are all over the Internet, work with almost all eBook readers and are a great open format, OpenSource tools to create them are few.
The most common one is seems to be Calibre which I have used a lot.   Calibre is especially useful for conversion between eBook formats but for ePub creation, I find the lesser known Sigil to be more intuitive and efficient.
Sigil only does one thing — create ePub documents. While not as slick as a modern word processor, it has the intuitive feel of a word processor, circa 1995.
Sigil Screenshot
Sigil plays to the strength of the ePub format by encouraging the user to use styles which continue to look nice on a wide variety of readers.   The ePub format is excellent for long-form documents like books, board reports, manuals, etc and Sigil gives you the tools to structure your document for efficient navigation.  You can easily add chapters, footnotes, cross-links, etc.
Sigil allows for images but this is not a strength of the ePub format. Small graphs or photos should be fine but if you are turning a scanned document into an ebook, consider the CBA format.
A weakness of Sigil is its limited import ability.  Mostly, it just accepts HTML or plain text files.
While you can export your LibreOffice (or other) word processor document to HTML and then import it into Sigil, I usually copy-and-paste my document straight into Sigil, one chapter at a time.  This works quite well if your formatting needs are simple.
If you want to adopt the ePub format (and I encourage you to do so!)  then Sigil is worth a try before you buy a commercial product or pay to have it done for you.

Tool: Sigil
Description: Cross-platform tool for ePub creation
License: GNU, free and opensource
Alternatives: Calibre
Rating: very useful