What you don't want to use, revisited

A decade ago, I advised my readers to stay away from OpenOffice for the preparation of professional presentations, primarily because of the poor support of vector graphics formats at that time. In view of the difficulties we have recently encountered when working with collaborators on the same document with different Office versions, I was now setting great hopes in LibreOffice for the preparation of our next project proposal. First of all, I thought that using platform-independent open source software, it should be straightforward to guarantee that all collaborators are using the same version of the software. Second, the support for SVG has been much improved in recent versions (>6) of LibreOffice, and I believed that we finally should be able to import vector graphics directly from Inkscape into an Office document. Third, the TexMaths extension allows one to use LaTeX for typesetting equations and to insert them as SVG, promising a much improved math rendering at a fraction of the time needed to enter it compared to the native equation editor. Fourth, Mendeley offers a citation plugin for LibreOffice, which I hoped would make the management of the bibliography and inserting citations as simple as with BibTeX in a LaTeX document.

Well, all of these hopes were in vain. What we (I) had chosen for preparing the proposal (the latest LibreOffice, TexMaths extension, and Mendeley plugin) proved to be one of the buggiest software combos of all times.

ad (i): Not the fault of the software, but still kind of sobering: our external collaborator declared that he had never heard about LibreOffice, and that he wouldn't know how to install it. Well, we thought, now only two people have to stay compatible to each other. We installed the same version of LibreOffice (first Still, than Fresh), I on Linux, he on Windows. But the different operating systems probably had little to do with what followed.

ad (ii): I was responsible for all display items in the proposal, and I've used a combination of Mathematica, Python, Gimp, and Inkscape to create the seven figures contained in it. The final SVG, however, was always generated by Inkscape. I've experienced two serious problems with these figures. First, certain line art elements such as arrows were simply not shown in LibreOffice or in PDFs created by it. Second, the figures tended to “disappear”: when trying to move one of them, another would suddenly be invisible. The caption numbering showed that they were still part of the document, and simply inserting them again messed up the numbering. We've managed to find one of these hidden figures in the nowhere between two pages (like being trapped between dimensions 😱), but others stayed mysteriously hidden. We had to go back to the previous version to resolve these issues, and in the end I converted all figures to bitmaps. D'Oh!

ad (iii): I wrote a large part of my text in one session and inserted all symbols and equations using TeXMaths. Worked perfectly, and after saving the document, I went home, quite satisfied with my achievements this day. When I tried to continue the next day, LibreOffice told me the document is corrupted, and was subsequently unable to open it. I finally managed to open it with TextMaker, which didn't complain, but also didn't show any of the equations I had inserted the day before. Well, I saved the document anyway to at least restore the text. Opening the file saved by TextMaker with Writer worked, and even all symbols and equations showed up as SVG graphics, but without the possibility to edit them by TeXMaths.

ad (iv): Since my colleague had previously used the Mendeley plugin for Word, it was him who had the task to insert our various references (initially about 40). That seemed to work very well, although he found the plugin irritatingly slow (40 references take something like a minute to process). However, when he tried to enter additional references a few days later, Mendeley claimed that the previous one were edited manually, displayed a dialogue asking whether we would like to keep this manual edit or disregard it. Regardless the choice, the previous citations were now generated twice. And with any further citation, twice more, so that after adding three more citations, [1] became [1][1][1][1][1][1][1][1]. The plugin also took proportionally longer for processing the file, so in the last example, it took about 10 min. Well, we went one version back. But what worked so nicely the day before was now inexplicably broken. It turned out that a simple sync of Mendeley (which is carried out automatically when you start this software) can be sufficient for triggering this behavior. We finally inserted the last references manually, overriding and actually irreversibly damaging the links between the citations and the bibliography.

In the final stages, working on the proposal felt like skating on atomically thin ice (Icen 😎). We always expected the worst, and instead of concentrating on the content, we treated the document like a piece of prehistoric art which could be damaged by anything, including just viewing the document on the screen. That feeling was very distracting. I would have loved to correct my position, really, but LibreOffice in its present state is clearly no alternative to LaTeX for preparing the documents and presentations required in my professional environment. I will check again in another ten years. 😉

In principle, I would have no problem with being solely responsible for the document if I could use LaTeX and would get the contribution from the collaborators simply as plain text. It is them having a problem with that, since they don't know what plain text is. In this context, I increasingly understand the trend to collaborative software: it's not that people really work at the same time, simultaneously, on a document, but it's the fact that people work on it with the guaranteed same software which counts.