Major gaps of Open Office Impress versus Microsoft Power Point, what do you think?

Yesterday Sergio, a user of OpenOffice Impress, sent to the discussion list his list of the “Major Gaps of OpenOffice Impress 3.3 vs. Microsoft Office PowerPoint”.

Sergio compiled the list because, as much as he likes OpenOffice, “after struggling for over 1 year, sadly he had to stop using Open Office Impress and go back to Microsoft Power Point”.

Personally, I have experienced and can confirm most of what Sergio lists as “File Processing issues”. I haven’t encountered the other problems, but that may be because I use Impress very little these days, and I only need it for very simple slideshows. I don’t even know yet, for lack of personal experience, if and how the current LibreOffice version of Impress would be different. However, I am very curious to know if such differences exists. Above all, since I strongly support the OpenDocument format used by OpenOffice, LibreOffice and many other software programs, I want these issues to be solved.
Therefore, after speaking with Sergio, I’ve reformatted his report and put it here where it’s easier to find it than as a mailing list attachment, and easier to comment without subscribing to a mailing list. Your feedback is welcome!

Impress File Processing issues

  • Slow speed of processing even with high efficiency PCs (major problem !): Many tasks are performed very very slow !
  • Cutting slides: very, very slow
  • Copying and pasting slides from one impress file to another: very, very slow
  • Acquiring a slide change, even in the text: quite slow
  • Saving files: very slow
  • Opening files: very slow

Copy and past slides from one impress file to another

When a graphic is present in the slide layout, it gets deleted when the slide is pasted and copied in the destination file (major problem).
the color format of the slide in the source file gets changed when the slides gets pasted in the destination file (In PowerPoint, when you paste the slide in the destination file you are asked whether to retain the original format, including colours, layout graphic, etc.)

Changing page (slide) (to the following or to the previous one) in normal view

In “normal” view, it is not possible to shift easily to one page to the following or the previous one, using for instance the side scroll bar or the mouse scroll wheel. This is possible only when the zoom size of the page/slide very small, not with operative size. You have to necessarily click on the new slide into the left frame with the miniatures slides. This is very cumbersome.

Icons view

It is not possible to view all the icons of the formatting toolbar, unless you set a very large window size. Please allow to arrange the toolbar in 2 lines, even when it is integrated in the menu bar.
Please allow to change the order of icons within a toolbar.

Formatting in Impress

Bulleted list: I can’t set easily and automatically a space or a tab between each bullet and the first character of the paragraph (this option is present in “Open Office ” Word)

Increase or decrease indent of a paragraph or a bulletted list: I can’t let the icon left-to-right or right-to-left appear in the Formatting Toolbar, and therefore it is difficult to increase or decrease the indent (this option is present in OpenOffice Word)

Multiple selection of non-consecutive text: it is not possible, within the text in a same text cell, to select multiple, non-consecutive words or sentences or different non-consecutive sentences of a bulletted list (these options are possible in Open Office Word using “CTRL”),
Similarly, within a table, it is not possible to select multiple, non consecutive words, or sentences or cells (this is possible in Open Office Word using “CTRL”).

Formatting multiple text cells at the same time: after you select multiple text cells, the tool bar “Formatting” disappears. Therefore, you have to go to the Edit toolbar or right click and make one change at a time in the text format, which is very time-consuming.

Formatting tables: there is no way to select a column or a line just putting the cursor at the top of the column or before the line.

Changing the column width: putting the cursor onto one column border (starting from the second column from the left), clicking and dragging it in order to enlarge or reduce the column width: there is no way to retain the original width of the side columns (this is partly possible in Open Office Word by clicking at the same time the CTRL).

When the file is saved and re-opened, especially when an Impress file is saved as Microsoft PowerPoint and then re-opened as Impress file, tables gets often increased in line-spacing (very difficult to reduce back) and, consequently, in the overall height, so that they often get outside the slide (major problem!)

How to automatically print or convert to PDF, MS Office or other formats OpenDocument files

The script and tricks in the ODF scripting section of this website show how to create office-ready texts, presentations and spreadsheets automatically, in the OpenDocument format, which is a worldwide standards. This is all many people need to work today. Sometimes, however, it’s still necessary to either print those documents, or exchange them to somebody in other formats, like PDF or those of the older releases of Microsoft Office (newer releases of this program are already partially compatible with OpenDocument through free plugins, so if your partners have those versions they should really use those plugins, instead of bothering you with requests for drug-like, legacy file formats, but that’s another story).

Of course, if you only need to print or convert to other formats only once in a while there’s no reason to not do it from OpenOffice. The simple tricks explained below, however, are a life-saver when you need to do this many times, and of course you’d like your computer to do it for you while you have a coffee or something.

On Linux systems it is easy to do all this, and even send the converted files via email, automatically. Let’s assume that you have an OpenDocument text, spreadsheet or presentation already sitting in some folder, waiting to be processed.

Both printing and conversion to PDF, HTML or MS Office formats from the command line need OpenOffice to work. In the second case, the reason is that what makes the actual work is one of the OpenOffice macros linked below: when you launch OpenOffice, it executes that macro on the file indicated by the user and then exits. Macros are not needed for printing because OpenOffice has dedicated options for that. Usage of OpenOffice from the command line is explained on the OOo wiki. In a nutshell, this is the correct syntax:

  soffice -invisible macro://path-to-macro($FILE)

On some systems, you may need to provide the complete path to the soffice program. The -invisible option is what makes OpenOffice start without a graphical interface. The file to process must be passed as argument ($FILE) to the macro.

The command above is all you need if you are working on a complete Gnu/Linux desktop, that is a system that also has a graphical interface server (called X server). For the record, you can do the same thing in Windows with a batch script like this (taken from an OOoforum thread):


  "c:program filesOpenOffice.org1.1.4programsoffice" -invisible "macro:///Standard.Module1.ConvertToPDF(%1)"

When you want to work inside a Linux Web or print server, instead, that is on a computer where X was never installed, you need to set up some extra variables before launching OpenOffice, otherwise it won’t start. This is how to do it (the explanation for the extra commands are in the thread in which I found them, which also includes instructions on how to install OpenOffice on a (remote) server:

  export PATH=$PATH:/usr/bin/X11
  export LANG=en_US
  export HOME=/var/www
  xvfb-run -a /usr/bin/soffice -invisible macro://path-to-macro($FILE)

Please note the extra piece in the actual command, that is in the last line above: `xvfb-run -a`. Xvfb is a smaller X server used in special situations like this, when a full X wouldn’t be installable. Also, don’t forget that, depending on the server configuration and your actual needs, you’ll probably have to change the LANG and HOME variables.

Show me the macros!

The previous paragraph explains how to run OpenOffice from the command line on Linux or Windows in order to execute any macro. Let’s now look at the actual macros we need to print or save in Microsoft or other formats. There are several ones available online.

Those with the best explanation, which includes details on how to install any macro in OpenOffice, are SaveAsPDF and SaveAsDoc. The beauty of these macros is that it is very easy to modify them to save in HTML or any other format that OpenOffice can handle! You just have to substitute the right values for the file extension (MYEXTENSION) and the filter name (MY_FILTER_NAME) in this part of the macro:

   cFile = Left( cFile, Len( cFile ) - 4 ) + ".MYEXTENSION"
     cURL = ConvertToURL( cFile )

     oDoc.storeToURL( cURL, Array(_
              MakePropertyValue( "FilterName", "MY_FILTER_NAME" ),)

Another macro that saves an OpenDocument file in PDF format was posted to the Fedora mailing list. Whichever macro you choose, put it in a suitable folder, accessible from the script and user account that will use it, and replace the path-to-macro string above with the actual full path to the macro in the file system.

How to print or email OpenDocument files from the command line

In order to do this we just need two other command line options of OpenOffice (see here for the complete list or type `soffice -?` at a command prompt to get a complete listing):

  soffice -invisible -p <documents...>
  soffice -invisible -pt <printer> <documents...>

They both print all the specified documents. The only difference between them is that the first one uses the default printer, the second looks for the printer given as first parameter.

Finally, if you also want your script to email on your behalf the files that it generated in this way, you can use the text-based Mutt email client in this way ($EMAIL_TEXT is a separate text file containing the text of the message):


if you find any error in this page or have any suggestion, please tell me (but remove the numbers from the email address first!) Conference 2010, preparing the next ten years

The conference celebrating the tenth birthday of started in Budapest yesterday morning. Here are some first notes from the field.

The opening session was a cool moment, both for the location (the Hungarian Parliament) and for the content. We started in the very hall of the Parliament. Incidentally, the first thing I noted there has nothing to do with OO.o but is a general problem of the FOSS and programming worlds: of about 150 people in the hall, no more than 10% were women, even if OO.o and FOSS users aren’t certainly 90% males, are we? But I digress.

The official conference brochure starts with a welcome message of the ODF Alliance Hungary noting “how appropriate it is that such a conference takes place in a region filled with resonance from the collapse of the totalitarian regime of the former Eastern block” that is an example of closed society replaced by a much more open one, and in a University that is based on an open society vision, open to improvement whose values evolve through trial and error, just like OSS. Dr Zsolt Nyitrai, State Secretary of the Ministry of National Development, greeted participants pointing out how the current government of Hungary fully acknowledges the importance of FOSS and the OpenDocument Format (ODF), proved by several practical experiences:“We encourage you to help us to open the closed doors of administration in the world of Open Source office software” (see also the official press release). Professor Rev also gave a really interesting speech, but since it’s much more general than OO.o or FOSS, I’ll write about it on another website.

The day before the conference, some other participants had told me they were expecting with great interest the other keynote of Michael Benner, vice president, Oracle Office GB: “let’s hear what Oracle wants to do with…”. The answer, as far as Benner opening speech goes, was reassuring:

  • is a good fit for this company
  • Oracle OO will be highly integrated with other Oracle products
  • Our business units offering include:
    • Oracle OpenOffice server
    • Oracle ODF plugin for MS Office
    • Oracle premier support for the products above and for OOo
    • more to come…

Florian Schiessl explained what made the Munich’s conversion to work: maniac attention to detail and patience. They looked at some 21000 different templates and macros one by one and converted each of them manually, but only when they were sure they couldn’t be abandoned, eventually reducing their number of about 40%. More info is at Wollmux. They had problems when they sent ODF files to other organizations that had never seen them before, but Schiessl’s suggestion is “do talk with your partners when they refuse ODF and there will be good results and simplification for everybody, for example like using MS formats, but abandoning MS-only macros because they were not necessary in the first place”. (of course, being one of the largest cities in Europe helps a lot in this approach… single users still have less
opportunities to be heard

Miklos Banai of ODFA Hungary closed the morning with a very interesting question: “Europe has a bigger population and GDP than the USA, yet Microsoft revenues here are around 10 billion usd/year, with a operating income/profit around 7 BUSD/year. This with OOXML that seems a standard of an artificial world of robots with artificial intelligence. I wonder if there is any human able to rebuild it with only the 6000+ pages of the OOXML spec… Is this the best deal for Europe?” For these reasons, Banai concluded, “the European Union should change for a younger, more valuable economical, flexible and secure solution for document creation”.

OpenOffice or OpenDocument?

By looking at the conference program one may wonder “is this an OpenOffice or OpenDocument conference?” Being there, I can confirm that, even if OO.o surely remains at the center of the stage, there is indeed a lot of interest in the OpenDocument format in and by itself, even outside of the single talks devoted to it. Louis Suarez-Potts, OO.o Community Development Manager, pointed out how in the next years it’s important to focus on ODF, since focusing only on OO.o doesn’t go very far, especially in Government circles. It is also crucial, he said, to make easier for more programmers to join development and to keep the whole community self-sustainable. Size in and by itself doesn’t really mean much (“think how General Motors ended”, Louis noted). What matters is “to not rely on any single company or language group: “a global community does not privileges one language, one nation…”. Louis final comment on the state of OO.o was:
The first 10 years were only setting the stage and clearing our throat. Real action starts now”

I’ve seen many cool things in the first two days of the conference. One I liked a lot were the free and commercial extensions developed by EuroOffice. They include map-based charts, interaction with GoogleEarth, an education tool to generates interactive diagrams with orbits and other informations about planets and eco-friendly printing (still experimental) that erases backgraounds or large images and changes text color to black. The best one for me is the Planet tool, because it proves something I really want to investigate in the next months: the potential of as an educational platform, that is a tool to build interactive courseware.

Speaking of ODF

I spent day 2 of OOOcon only looking at, or speaking about… the OpenDocument format. In the ODF interoperability demo, Inge Wallin of KOffice created a letter with KWord, associating to his own name in the text his phone number, hidden into an RDF variable. He then sent the letter by email to a colleague who, in real time, opened it on his smartphone with FreOffice. Working in RDF mode, Freoffice realized that “Inge” wasn’t a normal string, showed his phone number and, after one click on it, Inge’s cell phone started ringing at the other side of the table. Rob Weir showed how Mathematica can generate math formulas directly usable in OpenDocument while Jos van der Oever suggested that future versions of ODF may move to the Web, using JavaScript for macros and CSS for styiling. When I was asked what I’d like to see in future versions of ODF, my gut reaction was “please leave it as it is, it’s already good enough!”. On a second thought, I’d like to see
ODF do what the Universal Business Language was developed for (support automation of B2B financial transactions) and sentence-level cross-referencing, to stop saying things like “look at the 3rd paragraph on page 20″ in an era where documents are often not printed, but displayed on screens of all possible sizes.

Another very interesting moment of the day was the “Building Bridges” talk by Moritz Berger of Microsoft. He explained why he thinks that it is wrong to promise 100% roundtrip fidelity (and I fully agree with him here) but there are plenty of good reasons to keep using both OOXML and ODF, that is two standards for the same type of files. He also explained MS ODF imlementation priorities in Office 2007, 2010 and beyond. They are, from first to last:

  • adhere to ODF standard
  • be predictable
  • preserve user intent
  • preserve editability
  • (last) preserve visual fidelity

Me, I explained why I’m sure that ODF scripting is both a simple, huge time-saver and a good way to convince more people to use OpenDocument and In the next days, both my talk (and more first-hand news from OOOcon 2010) will be posted here, so stay tuned!

How to make OpenDocument slideshows out of plain text files

Slideshows are extremely popular as presentation and educational tools, but have a couple of serious problems. The first is readability: let’s admit it, many slideshows are almost unusable. One of the secrets to useful slideshows is terseness. Each slide should contain only a few short points or pictures which summarize the key concepts you want to transmit to the audience with that part of your talk.

The other big issue with slideshows is that GUI presentation software, be it PowerPoint, OpenOffice Impress, KPresenter or anything else, can be quite time-consuming and distracting, no matter how you use it. Writing bullets and sub bullets as simple text outlines is much faster, even when you’re just pasting together notes you scrabbled on your PDA, email fragments, quotes from Web pages or thoughts of the moment.

If you need to produce slideshows and think that the cleaner they are the better, but don’t like the time it takes to put them together in a GUI, here’s a solution. Like any other ODF document, OpenDocument slideshows are very easy to generate and process automatically. Besides, using the approach below instead of LaTex and friends has one big advantage: the end result is a file that you can pass around to everybody, including users who can only handle traditional office suites and maybe need to edit the slides, but wouldn’t touch any manual markup with a ten feet pole.

This said, there is one big difference between this kind of slideshow processing and the tricks in my other articles on ODF scripting: you will probably need to fix something manually, unless you improve the scripts found here or all your slides can always have the same fixed number of bullet points, each with the same, more or less constant number of words. It’s practically impossible for a few quick scripts to make all slides look good without some manual tweaking here and there. Even in this case, however, the whole process may still take much less than typing by hand the content of all the slides in Impress.

Practical example of automatically generated ODF slideshow

Here’s what I’m talking about. This picture on the left shows the initial template: the one on the right shows the result, that is the filled slide you’ll get by running the scripts explained below on this plain text source (shameless self promotion: these are the conclusions of my essay on Why Open Digital Standards Matter in Government):

  ==Conclusions: what have we learned?==

  - The only way to guarantee that our data remain ours is to store them in file formats which are independent from any single software product
  - In and by itself, Free/Open Source software is not a solution: many files in the examples above are lost not because of software licenses, but simply because:
   - Programmers didn't bother to leave any format documentation
   - End users didn't bother to demand it
  - Only formats which are not only "Free as in Freedom" but also fully documented and officially maintained by a reliable, not-for-profit organization give real guarantees

The markup of this outline is the txt2tags format: lines which start and end with one or more “=” characters are headings. A dash as first character of a line indicates a list item, or a sub-list one if preceded by a white space. Much faster than working with the mouse, isn’t it? Personally I use txt2tags because it only consists of one very simple Python script which can convert outlines to many formats, from HTML to Pdf (via LaTeX) and MediaWiki. This said, it’s quite easy to convert the scripts which follow to recognize other markup systems.

The initial ODF template is the simplest possible one: only one type of slide, that only contains text in two levels of bullet points, on a bare background. The reason is to present the basic, very general trick, with one simple but complete example. Once you understand the basic concept, however, expanding it is pretty simple, even if you want to include images, and you can use whatever template you like.

ODF slideshow generator: preparing the template

Let’s now see the preparation work you need to do (but only once) and the actual scripts that automatically convert plain text to projector-ready slideshow. To download all the templates and scripts mentioned in this page, click here.

The first thing to do is to create with OpenOffice impress a single slide presentation with your sample layout, and save it in ODF format. Next, you have to unzip the resulting .odp file, modify with any text editor its content.xml file as described below and then zip everything again with the name

You need to mess with the content.xml file for two reasons. The first is to copy into separate files the XML code corresponding to its bullet and sub-bullet and slide sections, recognizable from the tags shown in this picture.

The second is to open those files to replace slide number, title and the XML code you remove with special text strings, like MY_SLIDES_GO_HERE, which the scripts can recognize and replace with your content. If this looks boring, it is, but remember that it’s a one-time-only work.

ODF slideshow generator: here are the scripts

There are two scripts that you need to use for generating ODF slideshows. The first is a Bash one which manages all the files involved in the process, and then calls a Perl one that actually creates the new content of the slideshow by reading the text outline. If you need to use a different template you only need to modify that second script.

The Bash script, called and shown below, takes four arguments: the text outline, two XML templates (one for the single page, one for the whole content) and the zipped version of the reference OpenDocument slideshow:

   1  #! /bin/bash
   2  #syntax: outline slide slideshow template
   4  ODP_NAME=`date '+%Y%m%d%H%M'`
   5  ODP_SCRIPT='/usr/local/bin/'
   7  mkdir tmp_odp_gen
   8  cp $1 tmp_odp_gen/outline.txt
   9  cp $2 tmp_odp_gen/slide.xml
   10 cp $3 tmp_odp_gen/slideshow.xml
   11 cp $4 tmp_odp_gen/
   12 cd tmp_odp_gen
   14 unzip >& /dev/null
   15 rm    content.xml
   17 $ODP_SCRIPT outline.txt slide.xml slideshow.xml > content.xml
   19 rm outline.txt slide.xml slideshow.xml
   20 find . -type f -print0 | xargs -0 zip ../$ODP_NAME > /dev/null
   22 cd ..
   23 rm -rf tmp_odp_gen
   24 mv $ $ODP_NAME.odp

It first creates a temporary folder (line 7) and then copies into it all the files received as arguments (lines 8/12). After expanding the zip archive and removing the original content.xml files, it runs to create a new one with the text taken from the outline (lines 14/17). Once we have that file, it’s just a matter of removing all the temporary files, zipping together whatever is left and rename it with the .odp extension (lines 19/24). Important: for a cleaner way to zip/unzip ODF files see the comments here.

Let’s now look inside the script which actually creates the new slideshow,

     1  #! /usr/bin/perl
     3  use strict;
     7  my $CURRENT_SLIDE_NUMBER = 0;
     8  my $SLIDE_TEXT = '';
     9  my $SLIDESHOW_TEXT = '';
    10  my $SLIDE_TITLE = '';
    11  ########################################################################
    14  <text:list text:style-name="L2"><text:list-item><text:p text:style-name="P3"><text:span text:style-name="T1">__BULLET_TEXT_HERE__</text:span></text:p></text:list-item></text:list>
    18  <text:list text:style-name="L2"><text:list-item><text:list><text:list-item><text:p text:style-name="P4"><text:span text:style-name="T1">__SUB_BULLET_TEXT_HERE__</text:span></text:p></text:list-item></text:list></text:list-item></text:list>
    21  ######################################################################
    23  open(XML_SLIDE, "< $ARGV[1]") || die "could not open page template $ARGV[0]n";
    25  while (<XML_SLIDE>) {
    26      $XML_SLIDE_TEMPLATE .= $_;
    27  }
    29  close XML_SLIDE;
    31  open(TEXT_OUTLINE, "< $ARGV[0]") || die "could not open text outline $ARGV[1]n";
    33  while (<TEXT_OUTLINE>) {
    34      chomp;
    35      if ($_ =~ m/^==(.*)==$/) {          # a new slide starts
    36      if ($CURRENT_SLIDE_NUMBER > 0) { #format the previous page
    37          my $CURRENT_SLIDE = $XML_SLIDE_TEMPLATE;
    41          $SLIDESHOW_TEXT .= $CURRENT_SLIDE;
    42          $CURRENT_SLIDE = '';
    43          $SLIDE_TEXT = '';
    44      }
    45      $SLIDE_TITLE = $1;
    47      $CURRENT_SLIDE_NUMBER++;
    48      }
    50      if ($_ =~ m/^- (.*)$/) { # bullet point
    51      my $CURRENT_BULLET_TEXT = $1;
    55      }
    57      if ($_ =~ m/^ - (.*)$/) { # sub-bullet point
    58      my $CURRENT_SUB_BULLET_TEXT = $1;
    62      }
    63  }
    64  close TEXT_OUTLINE;
    72  undef $/;
    73  open(XML_TEMPLATE_FILE, "< $ARGV[2]") || die "could not open content XML template $ARGV[1]n";
    75  close XML_TEMPLATE_FILE;
    78  print $XML_TEMPLATE;
    79  exit;

The first ten lines of set up some auxiliary variables. Lines 13 and 17 are the hardest part, at least if you want to customize the script. $ODP_BULLET_POINT is the snippet of XML code which defines one single, first-level bullet point in a slideshow with the base layout shown above. Similarly, line 17 defines a sub-bullet: the way you distinguish one from the other is through the style-name attribute (P3 or P4 in this example). The script loads from external files (lines 23-29 and 72-75) two other XML templates, slide_template.xml for single slides and slideshow_template.xml for the whole document. The middle part, that is lines 33 to 70, is the one which loads the text outline, one line at a time, recognizes the txt2Tags markup and creates the equivalent XML/ODF version.

To understand how it works it’s probably better to start from the end, that is lines 57-62. Line 57 is a Perl regular expression which means “if the current line starts with a space, a dash and then another space, save all the following text into the Perl built-in variable $1″. That variable is then copied to $CURRENT_SUB_BULLET_TEXT. Immediately after, the script copies the XML code for generic sub bullets into $CURRENT_SUB_BULLET_POINT, and replaces the placeholder string inside it (SUB_BULLET_TEXT_HERE) with the content of $CURRENT_SUB_BULLET_TEXT. Finally, this shiny sub-bullet is added to $SLIDE_TEXT. Lines 50 to 55 do the same thing with first-level bullets.

The block from line 35 to 48 is a bit more complex because it must do two things. First, like the others, it recognizes the markup for a slide title and saves it into another auxiliary variable. A slide title, however, means that (unless we are at the very beginning, hence the check at line 36) we have a full slide worth of XML, accumulated while parsing the previous line, into $SLIDE_TEXT.

Therefore, before continuing, we have to load the single slide template into $CURRENT_SLIDE and replace the three placeholder strings with, respectively, slide number, slide title and slide content. Once this has been done, we can dump the result into $SLIDESHOW_TEXT and continue. Lines 66 to 70 do the very same thing to add the content of the last slide.

Once the outline has all been converted to XML format and saved into $SLIDESHOW_TEXT, we’re practically done. All is left is to place the content of that variable in place of the MY_SLIDES_GO_HERE string inside the complete template (line 77) and print everything to standard output.

And if something isn’t clear…

Try the scripts, and you’ll see that the whole process is simpler than it looks from this explanation, and don’t hesitate to let me know if something isn’t clear!

(the content of this page was originally part of a larger article written for Linux Format)

Comments to, How to automatically create ODF invoices without OpenOffice

(Note: these are the comments appended to my original article, which I had to put in a separate page when I switched from Drupal to WordPress)

Just came to your site…

Just came to your site following a link from linuxtoday. Wow! This opens windows of opportunities! Somehow I’ve totally missed out on the fact that odt documents are just zip files. I’ve been reading a bit through some content.xml files. And it seems that it should be possible to use openoffice from a text editor just as fine.

I made my thesis in OpenOffice, but only after convincing myself that it wasn’t worth it to invest a lot of time in learning (La)tex. There are always these small things that just change when working on a big file. With my current understanding, it would make perfect sense to write a document in a text editor, and then put it into some file of which I like the lay-out. Use OpenOffice as a mark-up language. And that is just frigging awesome!

I haven’t started to really research or test the opportunities, I just want to express my enthusiasm. Maybe you could shed a light on how to use openoffice as a true mark-up language?

Thanks a lot!


On ODF as a markup language

My answer:


first of all, thanks a lot for your appreciation of my work. There is no doubt that you can create OpenDocument (not openoffice!) files only using a plain text editor like notepad, emacs, Vim and so on. However, I would avoid doing so because it is very boring, time consuming and error-prone. One of the articles I have in the pipeline is how to write text in a much simpler and faster markup language liketxt2tags and then generate the OpenDocument version of the text with a script.

Another way to improve the zip/unzip part of this script…

….has been kindly suggested by Sander at (thanks, Sander!):

The script will lead to an ODF file with an invalid mimetype. Creating an ODF file using the zip command on the commandline is only slightly more complicated. See this article on my blog

Useful improvement

Soren Roug just suggested an improvement through the ODF-discuss list:

It's somewhat of a brute force solution. The main issue is that the mimetype
has to be the first element in the zip-file and not be compressed in order to
comply fully with the specification

Since the my_template.odt file already complies, it is much easier to take out
only content.xml and then stuff it back in.

cp my_template.odt new_$FILENAME.odt
unzip new_$FILENAME.odt content.xml
sed ... content.xml >custom_content.xml
mv custom_content.xml content.xml
zip -f new_$FILENAME.odt content.xml

Thanks, Soren!

How to automatically create OpenDocument invoices without OpenOffice

Articles on how to create OpenDocument invoices already exist but almost always they require you to start and use OpenOffice manually each time. Here, instead, I’ll show how to have your computer to do all your OpenDocument work for you.

odf_scripting_sample_invoice The script explained below takes an ODF template like the one of the left and generates an ODF text file like the one you see on the right below, which is ready to be printed or sent via email (follow the links to download the template or the resulting ODF invoice).

odf_scripting_customized_invoice The advantages of creating the invoice with a script rather than with macros are explained in detail in the “Why and how ODF can save you a lot of time” page: in a nutshell, once you have created and saved with any ODF compliant word processor the initial template, the whole process is completely automatic, so it could run unattended and be integrated with other backend systems even where OpenOffice isn’t installed.

The script takes two arguments, the template name and an invoice data file: odf_scripting_sample_invoice.odt

then opens the template, replaces placeholder data or strings like e.g. __Customer_name with the proper values from the invoice data file and finally saves everything as a separate OpenDocument text file. The data file has an extremely simple format, since it’s only variable assignments in shell script syntax:

  marco => cat
  PO_NUMBER='Purchase Order #1'
  DESCRIPTION='Here is your invoice'

and can be automatically generated on the spot by querying a database, by a Web server or in many other ways.

Here is the complete script, followed by an explanation:

       0 #!/bin/bash
       1  WORK_DIR=odt_invoice_generator_temp_dir
       3  rm -rf $WORK_DIR
       4  mkdir  $WORK_DIR
       5  FILENAME=`basename $1 .odt`
       7  cp     $1 $WORK_DIR/my_template.odt
       8  cp     $2 $WORK_DIR/
      10  ## preparation
      11  cd     $WORK_DIR
      12  mkdir  work
      13  mv     my_template.odt work
      14  cd     work
      15  source ../
      16  unzip  my_template.odt > /dev/null
      17  rm     my_template.odt
      19  ## replace text strings
      20  sed "s|__INVOICE_DATE|$INVOICE_DATE|"  content.xml  
      21  | sed "s|__VENDOR_CODE|$VENDOR_CODE|"               
      22  | sed "s|__PO_NUMBER|$PO_NUMBER|"                   
      23  | sed "s|__TOTAL|$TOTAL|g"                          
      24  | sed "s|__ISSUE_NUMBER|$ISSUE|"                    
      25  | sed "s|__DESCRIPTION|$DESCRIPTION|"               
      26  | sed "s|__Customer_name|$Customer_name|"           
      27  > custom_content.xml
      28  mv custom_content.xml content.xml
      30  ## zip everything, rename it as .odt file and clean up
      31  find . -type f -print0 | xargs -0 zip ../$FILENAME > /dev/null
      32  cd ..
      33  mv $ ../new_$FILENAME.odt
      34  cd ..
      35  rm -rf $WORK_DIR

The lines from 1 to 17 don’t do anything difficult: create a temporary working directory (WORK_DIR) copy the template inside it, unzip the template, and load from the data file (line 15) the values that must fill the template.

The (relatively) tricky part are lines 19 to 26: this is where a series of sed commands replaces each placeholder string in the content.xml file which contains the template text with its value loaded from
If you change the template you must add here one sed command for each string you want to substitute; the order is not important. Just remember that if a string occurs multiple times, as is the case with the __TOTAL price, you must add the g (global) option to sed (cfr line 23), otherwise the script will only replace the first occurrence of that string.

If you have any question or suggestion about this script, please email me or (even better, add it in the comments.

Why and how the OpenDocument format can save you a lot of time!

The OpenDocument Format (ODF) is an internationally recognized open standard for digital office documents whose importance has also been acknowledged by Microsoft. ODF is good for a lot of reasons I have already explained in Everybody’s Guide to OpenDocument. However, there is also one more reason why ODF is great for everybody who must produce a lot of office documents, one that will be the subjects of many posts on this website: ODF is really simple to generate or edit automatically. Even if you aren’t a professional programmer, it takes very little effort to put together a script that generates or processes in any way texts, presentations or spreadshets in ODF format.

How the openness of ODF makes automatic generation of documents much simpler

Very often, we use computers to produce many different versions, every time with new data, of some reference text, presentation or spreadsheet. Changing those kind of files manually makes sense only if it happens once in a while. When it’s a regular activity, instead, it can become a huge waste of time. ODF, however, makes it very quick and easy to insert raw data into texts, spreadsheets or presentations with the slightest possible amount of manual work and without even running OpenOffice. This is possible because an ODF file is just a ZIP archive, with pictures and macros in their own folders and the actual text written, in XML format, inside a file called content.xml. Therefore, in order to create a new, 100% compliant ODF file with different data, tables or images, you only have to open the archive, process the text inside content.xml or put new pictures in their folder if necessary and zip everything again. You must only use OpenOffice once, to create a template by hand if you if you don’t find a suitable one online.

The power of script-based ODF processing

You could perform repetitive generation and editing of ODF office files even manually, with a text editor like Notepad, Emacs or VI. The real power of ODF, of course, is in the fact that you can (and should) do all that processing automatically, with very simple shell or Perl scripts, that is with tools that are included in any Gnu/Linux distribution but can also work on Windows and Mac. The main advantages of this approach to office document processing are:

  • it works even without Openoffice, so it could even run on a server
  • there is no need of any relational database but you can use one if necessary
  • learning to do these things with shell scripts instead of OpenOffice macros:
    • gives you skills that you can reuse in a lot of other contexts.
    • allows very easy integration with other command line tools, from cron jobs to mass mailing, chart generation with Gnuplot or scaling, watermarking, framing of all images in a document with ImageMagick
  • above all, it’s much simpler (and faster) than you’d think!

The last point is the most important. Using the method explained here everybody with just a basic grasp of shell scripting can generate, modify or analyze hundreds of ODF text documents with just a few minutes of easy coding.

Of course, this approach is not really flexible, scalable or really robust, unless you add lots of code for error management, but the idea here is not to develop industrial strength solutions. If that’s what you need, you’ll have to either use real XML based tools like Odfpy or go straight to the source, the book OpenDocument Essentials by J. David Eisenberg, that you can also purchase at

This said, there are tons of cases where heavyweight tools like those aren’t worth studying, installing and deploying, but people still end up wasting many hours on repetitive edits. Learning how to write quick and dirty shell scripts that can open and update an ODF file is an easy but huge time saver in such situations.

What’s next?

Here are some of the ODF scripting recipes that you’ll find on this website in the next days (but if there are other recipes that you would like to see published, just ask and if possible I’ll write them!):

(note: some of these posts are updated excerpts of articles originally written for Linux Format, and are republished here with their permission)

How to import multiple pictures into a text document with OpenOffice or LibreOffice Writer

This is a way to import multiple pictures into an empty text with OpenOffice Writer, one picture per page, with a database report.

  • install the Sun Report Builder extension
  • create a database in the same directory as the pictures
  • enter or import in the database the file names of the pictures
  • in the database form, bind a picture control to that field.

This is a synthesis of a discussion on the OpenOffice users list. If you know more efficient methods, please let me know (mfioretti, at nexaima; dot net).

Final Notes from the ODF Plugfest in Granada

The second day of the Plugfest followed the same general scheme of the first one (covered in a separated page): a non-technical introduction followed by lots of hacking, feature analysis and product anticipations.

A representative of the Spanish Ministry of Presidency, Miguel Angel Amutio Gomez, started the day explaining the crucial points of the Spanish law 11/2007: the right for everybody to use whatever digital technology they like best and the obligation for all Public Administrations to avoid discrimination of citizens based on their technological choices. In order to make this possible, the law stresses the importance of open standards, setting the goal that all e-government services and documents become available at least through such standards. In this context, Amutio said, the Spanish National Interoperability Framework (NIF) that A. Barrionuevo presented in the first day becomes an essential legal test for all Spanish organizations.

Besides the law itself, the most interesting part of this presentation were the results of an analysis made using the NIF: it turns out that 30% to 40% of the about 400 digital standards already used for e-government in Spain comes from (in decreasing order): IETF, OASIS, W3C, ISO, and Microsoft.

After this stimulating factoid, the conference went back to strictly technical topics. Michiel Leenars of the Opendoc Society, showed us all you can do with OfficeShots. This is a rendering farm for office documents, primarily aimed to developers and power users but useful for everybody. When you upload your file to the OfficeShots server it will show you how it will look with many combinations of office suites and operating systems. If needed, an anonymizer kindly provided byt the lpOD folks (see Day One report) scrambles all the text to avoid online dissemination of sensible data. The most advanced use cases for OfficeShots include:

  • check before buying which ODF software works better with the kind of documents you actually need
  • design styles for corporate templates that render correctly on all office software products
  • (for developers) testing the interoperability of your program with other office suites

There is also a test suite gallery to help developers to test new versions of their products quickly. Of course, OfficeShots is an Open Source project to which everybody can contribute.

Microsoft and OpenDocument

Before lunch, Mario Wendt summed up the current status of Microsoft support for OpenDocument. Here are the main points:

  • Office 2010 will include over 1000 odf related bug fixes
  • Implementer notes for Office 2007 and Office 2010 requested by the community already available (even if only as single PDF files)
  • Study of the differences between ODF 1.1 and 1.2 in order to provide appropriate feedback
  • Ongoing work to contribute to finish OpenFormula
  • Commitment to support ODF 1.2 nine months after its formal approval by ISO

Opendocument on Android!

Using ODF documents on the road becomes easier and easier every year, at least for text ones. Oliver Mas presented the Android port of ODFMovil, a J2ME ODF viewer developed by Cenatic under an Apache 2/GPL2 license. The port, which was also intended as a pilot to estimate the complexity of porting bigger applications, was relatively easy due to the four-layer architecture of ODFMovil: core utilities, file management and compression, XML parsing, GUI. As it turned out, only the first and third layer could be ported. File management and graphical interface had to be rewritten from scratch. More details are available in Oliver’s ODFMovil slides.

OpenDocument for financial firms

There is a part of the OpenDocument standard that is really critical for its adoption, at least in some markets: the financial formulas that are used to calculate things like interest rates, mortgage payments and similar amenities. As Rob Weir put it, “an economist whose predictions aren’t wrong more than 10% is a genius, but a banker making a 1% error is a criminal”, so it’s essential that the formulas in OpenDocument don’t make any mistake. This is more complicated than it seems, to the point that a whole session of the Plugfest was reserved to this topic.

There are at least five ways to calculate the number of days between two dates that can in real life you can find mixed in different ways, depending on the traditions and regulations of every country (not to mention leap years): sometimes all months are assumed to last 30 days, and the year can be 360 days instead of 365. Since this changes how much you still owe to your bank after a few years of mortgage, it is absolutely necessary that all ODF compliant applications are 100% interoperable from this point of view. This means that each of them must declare without ambiguities what method it uses for day counts and how it handles (at least) the YEARFRAC() formula, even when it appears in a spreadsheet generated by another application.

Change tracking and handling of unique features

Another important moment of Day Two was the hacking session on management and interoperability of change tracking. Mario Wendt presented a test case that all developers could create and test on the spot, reporting the result on a common wiki: a text document with a fixed layout mixing a table, several paragraph and numbered list, on which everybody had to perform a well defined series of edits.

Saturday morning, instead, was “unique features” time. There are functions of some ODF capable suites that are simply absent from other programs: notable example are music shapes in KOffice or SmartDraw graphics in Microsoft Office. What must happen when you use such features in an ODF document that you want to share with users of other software? The session theme was that developers could, as a minimum, guarantee that:

  • their unique feature always provides a fall-back representation of that object that any other application can surely display(e.g a PNG version of SmartDraw graphics)
  • their application doesn’t mess with objects it can’t understand when it saves a file, so that, when the file itself is reopened with the application that inserted that object, it can still edit it
  • Careful readers of my ODF Day One report will immediately notice the intersection of this issue with the topic of my own talk and with what Rob Weir said about metadata interoperability. For the record, Rob also pointed out that the problem presented in my talk could also happen in another way: what if you insert into an OpenDocument file a macro in an open programming language (e.g. Python) that implements a patented algorithm? It will be really interesting to see how Public Administrations and other large organizations will handle all these issues in the medium/long term (if they see them in the first place, of course).

    Converting wikis to books in OpenDocument format

    The last cool thing I’d like to report from the Plugfest is a cool use of lpOD that Louis showed us on Friday: it turns out that you can use this software to export a whole wiki, or selected parts of it, to a book in OpenDocument text format. Besides a flexible templating system, the software gives you automatic generation of the Table of Contents and support for footnotes, tables and images. This could be a very handy publishing tool for schools writing their own textbooks or any other organization that creates text content working through the Internet!

    Notes from ODF Plugfest in Granada, Day One

    The ODF Plugfest is a Conference whose goal is to to achieve the maximum interoperability between competing applications, platforms and technologies in the area of digital document sharing, and to promote the OpenDocument format (ODF). This page, as the others that will follow on this website, is a short technical summary, primarily aimed at developers, of what happened during the first day of the conference. Later next week I’ll also post a non-technical summary of the whole event at the Stop.

    My own talk, which you can dowload at, was about a problem I first saw in 2006/2007: how do you prevent proprietary components from “polluting” open container formats like ODF?

    Alberto Barrionuevo explained how Opentia contributed to the Spanish National Interoperability Framework (NIF). This is a very interesting work, that could and should be replicated in other countries: Opentia took the full text of the 2007 Spanish law about e-government and translated it in mathematical format in order to match, in the most unambiguous possible manner, each legal requirement to equivalent technical ones.

    The result is a huge spreadsheet that implements a finite state machine and tells you if and how ammissible each of about 550 protocols, file formats and programming languages is for e-government usage in Spain (for the record, about 80% of them pass the test, at least partially.

    Rob Weir of IBM summed up the status of the next version of the standard. ODF 1.2, which is almost done, will be divided in three parts: one for the core schema, one for the container and one for OpenFormula (do you remember that the first generation of ODF compliant spreadsheet suites lacked formula compatibility? This should fix that problem for good). New features will include digital signatures, support for RDF capabilities (see below) and native tables in presentation slides. An Interoperability demonstration of ODF 1.2 will take place at the OOoCon Conference in Budapest next September. Rob also mentioned that everybody can send in suggestions for the next version of the standard, that should include things like modularization, web profiles, enhanced SVG support and Xform integration. You can either answer OASIS calls for public comments, join the OASIS ODF TC or implement ODF 1.2 and send feedback.

    Later on, Rob also introduced another theme that could and should get a lot of attention in the next years, and that is also somewhat related to what I said in my own talk: ODF metadata and interoperability. What should happen if your editing software loads and ODF file containing metadata that that software doesn’t understand? Should it preserve or ignore those metadata?

    In some cases the answer is easy: metadata that behave like visual attributes, eg the bold tag (where the attribute (boldness) is separated from the data or content it applies to) can be removed or ignored without any real damage. Go beyond that, and interoperable metadata are much harder to achieve.
    What if, for example, a document is pasted into another one that has a different value for the same metadata, for example the one indicating who in the organization is responsible for approving that text? An even more interesting case is “Should I digitally sign a document that contains metadata I can’t see?”

    Another interesting moment of the day was when Jos van den Oever presented the work for RDF support for ODF 1.2 in KOffice. Generally speaking, RDF should help to add to the text enclosed in a document information about the meaning of that text, in a format that is directly and easily readable by a computer. Consider, for example, a sentence like “Paris is hot”. If it’s in plain text, for a computer it’s very difficult to understand, even by looking at the rest of the document, if it means that temperatures in the French capital are high or that Paris Hilton (or the mythological Trojan prince???) is sexy. Adding an RDF data triple to the Paris string, that labels it as a city, would eliminate that ambiguity. RDF could deeply change our definition of “document”. If all your files were tagged in this way, it would become much easier (and portable) to ask your computer questions like “find me all the cases discussed by my law firm that involved unemployment law, but not in its home town”.

    The end goal is to get to a whole desktop that can use RDF, where the user can read and write docs with RDF, directly cut and paste them between applications. The current work on KOffice will allow it to show the user all the RDF triples and the corresponding text strings in a document, and to use those data to check and show locations on digital maps, or export appointments or phone numbers straight into calendars or address books.

    Day one of the ODF Plugfest ended with a presentation of several interesting tools that generate, convert or analyze automatically all kinds of ODF files:

    • ASPOSE.WORD a .NET and Java library for document processing in ODF and many other formats in cloud,
      single server or desktop environments
    • lpOD, an even more interesting (for my personal use, that is) library to create ODF documents. lpOD is already usable in Python (Perl and Ruby will follow) and comes with an online cookbook
    • ODFDom Library, another library, in Java this time, to library, written to create, access and manipulate ODF files, without requiring detailed knowledge of the ODF specification

    (note to all Plugfest participants and all other readers who want to comment or add something to this page: I’ll enable comments from anonymous users as soon as I can configure the corresponding spam filters, but in the meantime please register or send me an email at mfioretti, at nexaima dot net. And if you want to translate this page, just let me know)