Link added 31/1/2010
2009 was the year when I abandoned MS Outlook, adopted OpenOffice for mainstream document production, and switched my laptops and home PCs to Linux. This note may be of use to others who are thinking of going open and need some encouragement and reassurement. How do you stay compatible with all that stuff you've created, and why bother to make the changes anyway? Here are some things I found along the way.
CalendarsFor me a key problem to solve was how to keep personal and group calendars in sync across a range of PCs with a variety of operating systems. For years I had kept an MS Outlook calendar going because synchronisation problems with phones and laptops and with group calendars has been painful without it.
Google calendar was a big step forward, especially for shared workgroup calendars and special projects. But many people like to have their diary on their desktop, alongside email and their address book, like in MS Outlook.
Mozilla's Thunderbird email software has had a calendar - Lightning - which has steadily improved and become more stable. Last year Mozilla introduced calendar synchronisation with Google. This works well once you grasp that you also need a plug in called Provider for Google Calendar. Once this is installed you get the link settings from Google and then all your personal and group calendars will show in a tab in Thunderbird.
Now for the next step – install Thunderbird and the Google add-on to all other PCs you use, whether Windows, Linux or Mac. Once done you have all the PCs you use sharing and syncing diary data with Google calendar and therefore with each other.
Note of caution: this technique won't yet work in Thunderbird 3.0.
But what about your phone? If you're like me you don't carry around a laptop or notebook computer and rely on a phone – in my case a Nokia – to consult and update my diary. I used to do this when I was in the office through syncing the Nokia to MS Outlook, but now that was gone.
I had tried several methods of syncing Nokia phones with the Thunderbird calendar and all had proved unreliable. Again the solution has been provided by a Google development.
Google sync will now match your calendar and contacts with a range of mobile phones. On a Nokia this is achieved by installing Mail For Exchange – some irony here - onto the phone and then configuring it to use a Google site as the Exchange server. The instructions are here.
Phones using the Android operating system released in 2009 will automatically keep in sync with all Google data. So far this feature of Android has been little commented on. My prediction is that it will become a key selling point for Android as it becomes better known.
So there we have it – calendars synchronised across any number of PCs and mobile phones, running on all major platforms.
EmailmergeAnother key tool for me is emailmerge.
Emailmerge – personalising emails to multiple recipients – is growing in importance as an alternative to bulk email lists, especially those that use the Bcc method in which no one gets a message personally addressed to them. And emailmerge should be not restricted to individual names and addresses. Set up properly you should be able to put in customised data in the body of the email. A common example is event management. You want to send mails to people who have registered, confirming their workshop choices, dietary preferences and special needs and you have a spreadsheet with the participant data.
My first choice for emailmerge was to look at Thunderbird, on the principle that I am already using it. A recent third party add-on Mailtweak does the job. Oddly, it does not appear on the Thunderbird add ons page. The mail personalisation function works with the normal Thunderbirds address books, or for more customised mails you can use a text data source.
For more complex customised emails an excellent choice is the emailmerge function in the OpenOffice suite. To use this you create a document, insert the merge fields and data source, and then complete the merge to your chosen email client – in my case as you will have guessed it is Thunderbird. In recent months I have tested both the emailmerge methods outlined here. They work simply and reliably.
In the next part I look at advanced customisation of OpenOffice documents.
Customising OpenOffice documentsOpenOffice has become my day-to-day software of choice.
Open Office is commonly recommended as a replacement for commercial office software which will run on Mac, Linux and Windows. Its use was undoubtedly boosted by the appearance from 2007 onwards of DOCX files produced by MS Word 2007. These files could not be opened by users of 2003 MS Office software, but were by OpenOffice. Interestingly, Microsoft recently released a converter to allow 2007 MS Word to open and save OpenOffice files, presumably in response to customer pressure.
But OpenOffice is more than just a replacement. Its data handling functions mean that it handles some tasks more capably than the leading business software. This is in part because the various components of OpenOffice are built on the same foundation, so a document or presentation can behave like a spreadsheet. I am reminded of the pre-Windows all-in-one packages that I used in the early 80s – Ability Plus was then my choice.
In recent projects I have needed to find a way of quickly producing large numbers of extensively customised reports and then sending them out in an emailmerge. One project involved surveying c200 health service staff to get views on their development needs. The survey included skip logic so that the staff were not asked to respond to questions not relevant to them. In turn this required that the individual reports would capture staff comments in sections relevant to each person while omitting sections they had skipped.
I found that OpenOffice does extensive document customisation of this sort with little fuss. The method is to set up links within a document to your respondent data. Then carve up the document into logical sections and specify whether or not they are to be hidden from certain people.
For example, one field in my data asked whether respondents were managers or not. If the response is 'no' then the document produced for that person would skip the 2-page management development section. This technique was then repeated for 39 other fields, giving 1600 possible variations on the document without manual intervention. This feature alone is worth an OpenOffice installation. The drawback, not an uncommon one in OpenOffice, is that the procedure is sketchily documented in the help pages.
[31/1/2010 addition] - go to https://tinyurl.com/yjlrqdm for Sun's "Successfully adopting and integrating the OpenDocument format (ODF) with Microsoft Office Document Formats" [large PDF].Linux loosens up
2009 was undoubtedly a good year for Linux in its varied robes. Ubuntu, the leading desktop Linux implementation, made great strides forward in April and October with the 9.04 and 9.10 releases*. Key improvements were integration with 3G mobile broadband, much better handling of audio and video, and a 'netbook remix' version. Interest in Linux has also been boosted by the bad press for Windows Vista and uncertainty about paying out more to Windows 7. Moving to Linux became easier with decisions by Dell, Asus and some other producers to offer notebook and laptop PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed.
Now Linux is moving into the mobile market with the release of Android and the forthcoming Maemo operating system for Nokia phones. Having desktop and notebook computers running on the same core system as mobile phones will raise interesting possibilities in 2010. The prospect is for powerful computers to be more mobile, more open and more integrated.
*Ubuntu releases numbers refer to year and month
Doug Gowan is Chief Executive of the Open Learning Partnership