Calligra Suite redefines the Office Suite

Penthouse Suite

Article from Issue 173/2015
Author(s):

Calligra Suite goes beyond the standard four or five office suite programs by offering a range of applications for desktop and mobile computers.

Open most office suites of the past 20 years, and you know what to expect: a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation program, and possibly a database, a basic graphics program, and a scattering of other, often undeveloped tools. However, Calligra Suite [1], currently in second beta for its 2.9 release, is trying to shake up those expectations with a selection of applications designed for the modern user.

Office suites were not always so predictable. In the early 1990s, office suites were a hot topic in programming. StarDivision, the proprietary ancestor of LibreOffice, came with email and web browsers, as well as a desktop environment. But all these extras were jettisoned when Sun bought StarDivision in 1999, leaving only the standard set of applications.

This standard set consisted of programs that had been on the cutting edge in the early days of the personal computer. However, a generally available Linux office suite did not exist. Consequently, when Calligra's ancestor KOffice began development in 1997, "it was natural to base all productivity software on the same technical core," according to Boudewijn Rempt, the maintainer of the Krita paint program. The only reason, he adds, that early releases contained kontour, an early vector graphics application, was because "that was what someone liked to work on."

 

 

"I also have to admit that, in the early days, nobody was bothered much by users' needs," Rempt says. Instead, development was about "the fun of working on something you wanted to use yourself."

However, by Calligra's first release in 2010, its developers had started making a point of learning how users worked and what tools they needed. According to long-time contributor Inge Wallin, the two main audiences for Calligra are "Linux users who use it for their personal needs and mobile users who use the sponsored ports like Nokia's for their MeeGo and Jolla with their Sailfish operating systems." In all use cases, Wallin adds, "the most important factor is that the tool you use supports your work flow. This means that for beginners or casual users it should be simple to run and for the expert it should be configurable and powerful. The challenge is to do this without falling into the traps of either introducing too much complexity for the casual user or too many limitations for the expert."

To achieve these goals, Calligra programmers developed the habit of consulting users as closely as possible. For example, Rempt remembers how Krita [2] improved immensely once it started to encourage design input from the artists who used it.

"When we moved our focus from 'clone of PhotoShop' to 'the best application for creating images from scratch' we got a whole new audience," Rempt says.

Similarly, in developing Author, Calligra's book-writing application, Wallin and other developers "mapped the workflow of a writer of books and how their needs differ from those of a standard office writer."

"Don't make a mistake: The people who use Krita do so in ways that the developers never thought possible. And that's true for all applications," Rempt says. "Our job is to make that possible."

Redefining Office Suites

Calligra Suite has an advantage over early office suites such as MS Office in that its applications are designed to be tightly integrated. As Wallin points out, if you look at the OOXML file formats for MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, even simple elements such as text paragraphs are marked differently. By contrast, while each Calligra application has its specialized features, they all share common libraries as well as the same tools for adding objects such as pictures and charts.

However, user input has helped evolve Calligra in unique ways. Calligra includes the expected basic applications: Words [3], Sheets [4], and Stage [5], but these aptly named applications are only the foundation of the suite. Calligra's secondary applications are not simplified versions of specialty tools. For example, Krita [6] is not a limited graphics designer like LibreOffice's Draw, but a complete paint program that rivals GIMP and PhotoShop. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Karbon [7], Calligra's vector graphics program, although it appears somewhat neglected in recent months. Both Krita and Kexi [8], Calligra's database application, are at such an advanced stage that many of their users seem unaware that they are associated with an office suite. Krita even has an independent foundation that oversees its affairs.

Just as importantly, Krita provides tools that were previously either missing or underdeveloped on the Linux platform. For instance, LibreOffice has the capacity to insert basic flowchart shapes but leaves them unidentified, Calligra's Flow [9], however, includes more than three dozen libraries of shapes for diagrams, identifying each shape with mouseovers, making it more comparable to Microsoft's Visio. Nor is there an application as mature as Plan [10], Calligra's project management application.

In addition to these refinements, however, Calligra is also experimenting with other additions to the usual office suite repertoire. For example, Wallin describes Braindump [11] as "a form-free application for handling unstructured data and to help you, well, do a brain dump for later sorting out." Although Braindump has suffered from a lack of developers recently, Wallin suggests that it might benefit from a mind-mapping feature, making it a tool for developing and structuring ideas.

Wallin himself is the creator of Author [12], a tool designed for writers of long documents that in some ways is a specialized version of Calligra's Words.

"Modern word processors have so many side functions that sometimes the simple act of putting words onto the screen is obscured by all the user interface that is needed to control all those side functions," Wallin explains. "This will not happen to Author, no matter what happens to Words." In Author, he promises, "Writing and editing text is King." From discussions with writers, Author's developers have developed a roadmap that includes, "export to ebook formats (EPUB and MOBI), a navigator for big documents, a so-called distraction-free writing mode, and export to DOCX format." Other planned features include master documents, a cover designer, and an outliner.

For the entire office suite, Calligra is also developing Calligra Gemini [13], which Rempt describes as "a version of Words and Stage that can switch between a desktop and a tablet GUI – on some convertible ultrabooks even automatically."

Future Directions

Neither Rempt nor Wallin is concerned about the proliferation of applications in Calligra being too much for users. "If you don't need an application, you can just choose not to run it," Wallin says. "Disk space is cheap today so installing it on to your hard drive won't be a big burden."

On the one hand, Calligra Suite remains free software, and the future of some of its applications may depend on whether enough developers are interested enough to work on them. Rempt also raises the possibility that lack of developers could mean that some applications fail to survive the transition to the Qt5 toolkit that is presently happening in KDE.

On the other hand, additional tools are also a possibility. "The technical foundation of Calligra makes specialization of general tools almost trivial in comparison to other office applications," Wallin says. "It would be quite easy for somebody to create a very capable specialize script writer for movie scripts using the tools that are already present in Calligra. And we have discussed creating a simplified Kids variation of Calligra Words with a simpler toolbox."

Other possible future directions include real-time collaborative editing and cloud integration, and the development of open standards for such features. As Wallin notes, these are the features that proprietary office suites are starting to introduce and could encourage vendor lock-in if free alternatives do not exist.

Exactly which features will eventually become part of Calligra remains uncertain. As always, attracting enough developers remains a problem. Nor are all innovations likely to be successful.

Still, one thing is clear: In the recently static world of office suites, Calligra Suite shows a refreshing attitude that improvements are both possible and useful.

 

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