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Software needs to catch up to Widescreen usage

There are many things that should have evolved in software as hardware advanced and evolved, but never did. Some things actually devolved, such as software bloating, because developers saw more processing power as an excuse to write inefficient code, but I digress. One of the things that bothers me to this day is that few if any modern word processing applications (and other applications for that matter) have taken into account that most people are now using widescreen monitors.

The first word processing applications were written when the standard screen ratio was 4:3. On these monitors, it made sense to put the various menus and control buttons on the top of the screen. As we made the shift to widescreen, however, it no longer made sense to clog up what precious little vertical screen real estate we had when there was so much more horizontal real estate to work with. This didn't really register with me until I was testing a new (at the time) office suite from IBM called Lotus Symphony.

Lotus Symphony is based on a fork of the Open Office suite from Sun Microsystems. IBM wanted to develop a more robust (and better looking) Office Suite, in Java, which they could pair with their Lotus Notes product line. The result was a very nice office suite which put design at the forefront of development. Since the Open Office code base was very mature and stable, not much had to be done on that front. This left IBM free to focus on design and usability.

One of the best design decisions IBM made for Lotus Symphony was to move all of the formatting options and other non-core menu items to the right side of the screen. Instead of making all of the applications look and function like separate applications, which most office suites do, Lotus Symphony works more like a tabbed web browser, with each tab representing a certain function of the suite: word processor, spreadsheets, presentations. The core menu items, such as "File, Edit, View..." etc., were kept at the top since they only occupy a few horizontal pixels. Everything else was moved to a side bar. This made the work space feel less cluttered and gave more focus to the core objective in whatever tab you were working in.

I still consider this to be one of the greatest design shifts in an office suite since formatting options were introduces as buttons instead of key bindings. I was somewhat saddened to learn that IBM had stopped development of the Lotus Symphony product in January of 2012, but development will continue back within the Open Office code base. I'll skip the long story about the travesty that befell Open Office as a result of the Sun Microsystems acquisition by Oracle, but needless to say, it created major waves in an industry that hates Oracle and everything it stands for. The result was another (yet more successful) fork of the code base into a new office suite named Libre Office. Oracle then decided to dump the original Open Office code base onto the Apache foundation, which then promptly rebranded it as Apache Open Office. This is where IBM will now focus its code contributions. It will also offer an IBM branded version of this code base called Apache Open Office, IBM edition.

I am somewhat excited to see what the collaboration will produce, as there is a good chance that Apache Open Office may adopt the IBM Lotus Symphony design. I currently use Libre Office for Mac, but with some substantial development efforts as well as a change in the UI to match the Lotus Symphony UI, I could definitely see myself switching back to Open Office in the future. Either way, these are both excellent office suites that promote the most important of software values and ethics: open source. I highly recommend them to everyone.

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