One interface, many truths

Today I’d like to discuss a topic that is constantly recurring about LibreOffice: the overhaul of its interface. I am aware the matter has some real trolling potential, but at least if one wants to troll it is important to get some things straight first.

Is LibreOffice’s interface outdated? It depends who you ask the question. The problem is that some part of the answer is really a matter of taste; another part of it is really about the kind of interface we could have; and yet another side of the matter is the perception of what its interface should be like. Let’s address the three issues separately.

A matter of taste

Do you like the Tango icons shipped by default with LibreOffice? Do you prefer the Sifr iconset? Really, it’s up to you. Did you know you could customize pretty much each and every toolbar of the interface? You can not only add new toolbars, you can of course remove them, but you can also change their actual position and even customize them. You can use Firefox themes as the background of LibreOffice. What’s not to like then? The interface is outdated? Now we’re getting somewhere…

What kind of interface should we have?

That is actually a broad issue. The whole debate started at the times of the old project. Microsoft Office had just been shipped with its ribbon interface, and there were really two kinds of feedback. One was that we should switch right away to a ribbon-like interface. The other one was just as loud, and was urging us to stick to our menu based interface. Statistical analysis showed a clear correlation between a massive surge in downloads of and the ribbon interface of Microsoft Office. This debate has not changed since that day. We receive dozens of mail, tweets, comments telling us to get a ribbon interface, a dozen more urging us to the contrary. It is obvious that many people hate change, but it is also important to realize that with respect to the ribbon interface, there is no new and old interface. Ribbon intefaces are one of the three possible types of interfaces for a computer: text (command line, for instance), menu (LibreOffice, Photoshop, Firefox, etc.) and ribbon (Microsoft Office). The text interface obviously is the oldest, but the ribbon and menu interfaces are actually quite old. Tiled windows managers such as the old CDE or Fluxbox belong to the category of meny interfaces for instance. Ribbons were not overly popular before Microsoft Office and force a different way of thinking based on a stream of icons and options, rather than a highly logicial flow of menu and hierarchies. No one is “more or right or more wrong” than the other.

To me the real question is what we should have as actual improvements to our present inteface. It’s not so much about how to make it look more up to date -major efforts have been accomplished since the 4.1- but how to make certain options more readily accessible to the user. A good example of people who went to think hard about the interface is the Calligra team. I’m not suggesting this is where LibreOffice should go, but it is clear they thought about a new way to think about the various menus and toolbars. Last but not least, it is also important to realize that LibreOffice on tablets or phones will have a new interface, or at least will go through a major simplification of the interface. Things are not idle in this field, but there are constraints. More on that below.

What should the user interface of LibreOffice look like?

Among the recent feedback on LibreOffice, someone on Google + wrote that we should copy the Microsoft Office’s Ribbon interface “just like KingSoft Office”, because that way people would migrate seamlessly to LibreOffice. This kind of comment is not isolated, and I think it’s important to set the record straight on this:

  • there are several copyright issues if you just copy Microsoft Office. Perhaps even patents. KingSoft is based in China. It is a different matter as they do not seem to be affected by these legal constraints.
  • we are not interested in being a clone. When you are a clone, people always prefer the original and you have invested tremendous resources in being just that, a clone. I don’t think many LibreOffice developers are interested in a clone either. We are interested in developing the best office suite in Free Software, interested in growing our community, interested in helping others and promoting digital freedomes and bridge the digital divide. It is fine if you want to use a clone of Microsoft Office, but we’re just not that kind of project.

That being said, would a ribbon interface for LibreOffice speed its deployment? It is very hard to say. Because people who hate ribbon interfaces would go away, while the rest of them would have to learn a new ribbon interface, a new way to do even the simplest things, while the rest of them would use alternatives or Google Drive, with its much simpler interface. On top of this, it is very important to always remember that we cannot change the LibreOffice user interface in one shot. The code is too complex, it has undetected dependencies pretty much everywhere, and we are thus constrained into incremental changes. Of course in a few years, the interface will look very different from what it does today. I could actually write the same about how LibreOffice looks like today: open it on Windows 7 or 8 and compare it with, any version of 2007-2008. You WILL notice major differences.

The conclusion of this (too long post) will thus be this one: when it comes to user interfaces, there are many truths and even more prophets; the reality however is more complex, and often times frustrating. If you want to help with the LibreOffice interface, join our Design team, and you will be able to work on improvements while incrementally changing it to something different and hopefully better. More importantly, you will have learned from a great community and this community will have learned from you!

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