I spent the day Thursday at StarOffice in Hamburg and came away with some of my ideas about XML & blogging changed. It was a side-trip; other business took me to Brussels and OpenOffice wasn’t that far away and I had an agenda there, which we’ll get to. But this is important stuff, I think. [Updated with a pointer.] [And again with Geof Glass’ OO.o-to-blog gateway.]
You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Program · What happened was, there was this company in Germany called Star Division that made an Office competitor and a Quicken competitor and a portable-infrastructure package and so on. The products were called StarOffice and StarMoney and so on. Sun bought the Office part of the biz and now the data formats are XML and the software is Open-Source (under the name OpenOffice.org).
Which means you can go to OpenOffice and download the OpenOffice binaries (it runs on Windows, Linux, and Solaris), or you can hit the CVS and get the source. Alternatively you can buy StarOffice from Sun, which is OpenOffice on a CD in a nice box with books and including a bunch of proprietary goodies that aren’t open-sourced, like extra fonts and spell-checker files and a central admin facility. Whether you’ve got OpenOffice or StarOffice, you can sign up for product support with Sun (never used it, no idea how good it is).
What’s In the Package · A word processor, a slide show maker, a spreadsheet, a vector-graphics package, a database client; more or less what the competition has, minus a standalone database, plus better graphics. I can’t say how good it is because I’ve only used it on the Mac where it’s kind of a hacked-together experiment, which I used to cook up a couple of slide shows in a big hurry. It was acceptably usable by someone who is a PowerPoint whiz, which I am; but it ain’t close to Keynote yet. Anyhow, they’ve sold a million copies in Germany for real money, and if you go poking around, the reviews are getting better and better.
XML! · The way that these guys store the data is massively, fiendishly, outrageously clever. They have their own XML tag set, which includes (in one namespace) all the basic word-processing, spreadsheet, and slide-show machinery. Then, for graphics they use SVG, for styles they use XSL-FO, for links they use XLink... you get the picture, they’ve invented the absolute minimum possible.
You know what this is? This is exactly what the people who invented XML thought they (er, we) were doing it for. It’s no secret that the original XML cabal was a bunch of of publishing geeks, and we thought we were building a next-generation general-purpose document format. Except for, the XML world charged off after B2B and Web Services and transactions and RSS and so on, and hey that’s fine, it works well for all those things. But what we had in mind is more or less exactly what OpenOffice is doing.
As if this wasn’t clever enough, they wrap up documents in a zipfile with a manifest and a MIME type and separate chunks of XML for the data and metadata and styles and and manifest and so on. So the size is moderate, it loads fast, and it’s all in a single handy blob. I’d go into some of the (fascinating) reasons why this works so well, except for I’m trying to convince some of these guys to start blogging, and it should be their story to tell. (And, as a footnote, all this cleverness, along with some community and competitive input, is being standardized so anyone can use it.)
Also, they use XSLT in a totally slick way to do what it was designed for as opposed to what it’s (mostly) being used for; but I’ll leave that story to them, too.
Blogging · My agenda in visiting OpenOffice was all about blogging and RSS and so on. First of all, I was trying to convince those guys (a few pictured above; and guys, you know, girls can develop software too, OK?) to start hanging out on the Web. This is now one of the world’s largest Open-Source projects (Sun is paying several floors in a big building full of people to work on it, and there are tons of other contributors), and it has really lousy visibility. These are interesting people and they know more about XML and portable on-screen rendering and struggling with print drivers and so on than just about anybody, and the world needs a few voices out of North Germany writing about all this stuff and also about what it’s like to compete with Microsoft Office. (Q: How would you encode printer settings in an XML document format? A: The question had never occured to me, but eventually we’re all going to have to do it, and they’ve done it.)
So stay tuned, and I’ll keep bugging them, and when they do lurch into the blogosphere I’ll point at ’em, and I bet they’ll be worth reading.
But Wait, There’s More · Another thing I want to do is make sure the Java Desktop System is blogging-friendly. I had this retarded idea that maybe OpenOffice should build in an aggregator. But the guys pointed out that in Gnome-space (the JDS is a packaged & polished Gnome distro) there are RSS readers that are either already good or just getting there.
It turns out that OpenOffice already comes with a doohickey that will produce an XHTML approximation of most documents (Lauren tells me it’s shaky on tables); plus it’s got a nice HTTP library and APIs out the wazoo. Can you see what I’m thinking? There’s no reason this sucker shouldn’t have a “Blog this” button that XHTML-i-fies whatever you’re typing, lets you preview, and then lets you ship it out via one of the existing blogging APIs or the Atom API.
Geeks like me are fine with writing in Emacs, but lots of people seem to like writing in word processors, and as of this week, I think that any word processor without a “Blog This” button is just broken.
Obligatory disclaimer: this is not a Sun product commitment, this is just me getting excited. But you can bet I’m gonna be beating the drums internally. Anyone who wants to hit the CVS and just do it, let me know.
Why Does Sun Care? · Because of this. Nuff said.