This article is a follow-up to my earlier NeoOffice 1.2.2 review. It is based on my experiences with NeoOffice 2.0 Alpha and the newly released Aqua Beta.
Shortly after my NeoOffice 1.2.2 review, discussion opened on the NeoOffice forums regarding how to fund and continue to develop NeoOffice. Just to recap, NeoOffice is a Mac-only release of OpenOffice.org. The team, which is not funded by either Apple or Sun, consists primarily of two developers who have taken it upon themselves to create what is easily the nicest version of OpenOffice.org on the Mac.
These two developers have replaced OpenOffice.org's dependencies on X11.app with dependencies on Java, which is considered a native toolkit on Mac OSX. This arduous task results in the only complete Open Source suite for the Mac that offers native font rendering, native printing, and an increasingly integrated look and feel with the rest of the Mac OSX environment. In my opinion, NeoOffice is the only credible Microsoft Office competitor on the Mac platform.
While it is certainly commendable that this pair of developers has come this far, they found the current funding model to be rather unsustainable. That is to say that they were pretty much funding the better portion of half of the development. Anyone following the project would be unsurprised to discover this. The two developers are both excellent software engineers who take their jobs very seriously. The main developer, Patrick Luby, develops NeoOffice full-time. Given his obvious skill, this certainly comes at a sacrifice to his bottom line.
It was in this context that an alternative funding model was investigated. After much open and interesting discussion on the NeoOffice forums, it was decided that Patrick would attempt an “Early Access Program.” Through the EAP, supporters get early access to the NeoOffice 2.0 Alpha releases. After two weeks, the price would dropped and after a month, the initial 2.0 Alpha – with patches would be made available to the general public. This actually solves several problems while generating what is hoped to be a sustainable business model for the project. First, it limits the pool of people to support to only those who feel strongly enough about the project to support it. Second, it gives businesses a way to contribute to future NeoOffice development without having to justify a straight donation. With the EAP, you are getting something tangible for your money: Early access to NeoOffice binaries. And let me make one thing clear: Throughout the EAP, the source code remains freely available. You are merely paying for convenience with the EAP.
But enough with the EAP, on to the actual software.
As of the time of writing, NeoOffice 2.0 Aqua Beta is the current version available for both Intel and PowerPC Macs. There are many improvements in NeoOffice since version 1.22, the last stable version available. A few of the highlights are as follows:
NeoOffice 2.0 is the first release of NeoOffice to be available for both Intel and PowerPC-based Macs. I've used it extensively on both a PowerBook 1.5GHz with 1.25GB of RAM and an Intel Mac Mini duo 1.66GHz with 2GB of RAM. While NeoOffice works brilliantly on both platforms, I've found that it seems faster on the PowerBook. This may be due to the Mini using NFS-mounted home directories, as I have seen no mention of the Intel version being slower than the PowerPC version on the forums. In any event, responsiveness has if anything improved since 1.22.
Startup time in particular is much improved. The current version starts on my PowerBook within 30 seconds after first launch. Subsequent launches are up and running within 10 seconds. This is a dramatic improvement over the one minute startup time of NeoOffice 1.x and brings it much closer to what users expect on the Mac platform. This time compares to an initial startup time of about 15 seconds for MS Word 2004, with about 5 second times on subsequent launch. NeoOffice still isn't as fast to launch as MS Office, but it's made huge strides. On the Intel Mac, NeoOffice starts about as quickly as MS Office under Rosetta.The alphas have been completely rock-solid under both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs. I personally haven't seen a single crash and early display bugs were fixed almost immediately. By the time the public Alpha hit the site, the release was certainly of at least the same caliber as NeoOffice 1.22. Since that initial release, a patch was issued that further greatly improved initial launch time, as NeoOffice no longer preloads all system fonts on startup.
The 2.0 Alpha has moved NeoOffice ahead in great strides once again. The community now has a native office suite for both Intel and PowerPC Macs that uses the emerging OpenDocument standard and has no external dependencies on X11. However, as exciting as this initial 2.0 Alpha was, the newly released Aqua Beta promises to be even better.
NeoOffice developers certainly haven't been resting on their laurels since the Alpha release. Far from it. They've been busily working away on the 2.0 Aqua Beta released into the EAP on August 1st. The biggest news with the 2.0 Beta is the dramatically improved look and feel of NeoOffice. Yes, NeoOffice is finally going to look the part of a real Aqua application.
OpenOffice.org 2.0 made a real effort to separate portions of the GUI from the underlying code to make it less difficult to make OpenOffice.org fit into a variety of operating systems. Until now, however, these changes haven't made their way to the Mac platform. OpenOffice.org itself is based on StarOffice code from StarDivision. This product has been in development in some form for nearly fifteen years now. As a result, the code is incredibly complex and is showing its age in parts. Moreover, the developers were initially targeting OS/2 and Windows, then later Solaris and Linux. Only since OpenOffice.org 1.1 has the Mac even been a consideration. Given the vast differences in the way these different platforms are written, and the extra complexity of NeoOffice's Java dependencies, it should come as no surprise that making NeoOffice look like a well-behaving Mac application presents extra difficulties not normally present on other systems. Despite this, huge strides are being made in VCL, the GUI layer of OpenOffice.org to make NeoOffice finally have an Aqua look and feel. Each of these improvements is immediately seen throughout the suite. At the time of the Beta release, Aqua widgets were available for most controls. The Aquafication can be seen throughout, from the splash screen to the first run wizard, the main program windows and the preferences. The change is very striking.
Equally exciting is the recent addition of native file dialogs. This means that NeoOffice now has standard Mac OSX Open and Save dialogs in addition to Aqua toolbars, tabs, colours, buttons and option dialogs.
The changes are quite simply amazing and will go a long way in making NeoOffice blend with the rest of the OS. This development has been a very long time coming. That it seems to be have come together so quickly now is a testament to the outstanding foundation that the two main developers have been building throughout the early days of NeoOffice/J. That they could manage all of these aqua changes in the time between the Alpha and Beta releases is truly remarkable. The file dialogs in particular were an interesting challenge, as even Linux uses OpenOffice.org's custom dialogs.
Not content to “just” add Aqua widgets and dialogs, the NeoOffice community has also been working hard on a replacement splash screen (shown above) and new file icons. This too is a welcome change that certainly adds to the applications polish. The new file icons fit in well with both NeoOffice and the Mac Finder, making the user experience that much nicer. These improvements, while subtle, add significantly to the level of professionalism of the project.
There is also an active and growing support network focused around the trinity forums and NeoWiki. Volunteers often spend significant time helping new users learn the intracacies of NeoOffice. The forums often serve as the best source of information and troubleshooting for both NeoOffice and OpenOffice.org on the Mac. The NeoWiki serves as a growing source of NeoOffice-specific documentation, providing clarification for the EAP, a comparison of various Mac suites and a compatibility list of formats supported by NeoOffice/OpenOffice.org.
NeoOffice 2.0 Beta sets the stage for what should be the release to break into the Mac mainstream. It now looks and acts the part of a native Mac application. Moreover, the performance has steadily been improving. While further tweaking will be necessary given the magnitude of the recent GUI changes, the project is down to the details. The small, persistent development team should be congratulated for their unrelenting efforts. With any luck, the EAP will even put the project on track to sustainability. There is no doubt that this is the premiere Open Source Mac OS office suite. Some would even argue that NeoOffice is shaping up to be the premiere office suite for Mac OS period.