Saturday, May 24, 2008

State of free desktop publishing not that impressive. As some of you know, my wife runs her own business designing and selling cute knitted critters. Most of the revenue, however, comes from the sale of patterns, and not the actual toys, because the amount of time spent on knitting a toy pretty much offsets the price at which people are likely to buy it. Since I'm somewhat familiar with desktop publishing, I help her out with the layout of the patterns, and with the layout and design of the book.

In the world of free software, there's pretty much only two choices for doing desktop publishing -- either Writer, or Scribus. We started with OpenOffice, but while it's great at doing simple documents, introducing more complex layouts quickly brings it to its knees. Our book is only 40 pages of 2-column text with full-page graphics here and there, plus a sprinkling of floating frames. I dread reformatting it, as that inevitably causes Writer to go into fits. Sometimes just adding a paragraph causes it to insert dozens of blank pages somewhere in the middle of the document. My editing sessions almost always result in wailings and the grinding of teeth. Nothing more frustrating than saving a document only to find that it renders differently upon re-opening.

I tried Scribus when we first ran into some trouble with Writer, around November of last year. I wasn't impressed -- it was crash central, and I couldn't get even the simplest text frames to work correctly. Perhaps it was a bad build, or just a bad version release -- not sure -- but we decided to stick with OOo with all its failings. Recently, we started talking about releasing another holiday-themed pattern book, this time perhaps with an actual ISBN, which lets us hook into Amazon and B&N digital distribution system. Since Lulu's PDF file requirements for ISBN projects are a lot more strict, I decided to revisit Scribus again -- to see if things are any different six months later.

They are, but still not without drawbacks. Current version of Scribus in F8 and F9 is 1.3.4, which still crashes every now and again, though not nearly as often as before. The interface is not that confusing, and seems to render the content correctly -- at least when it's a few pages long, as I haven't yet had a chance to create a longer document. The main drawbacks with this version -- the rendering (and thus scrolling) is very slow, the undo is very weak, and it still links against qt3, meaning that if you don't have KDE3 installed on your machine, the interface will render in all its eye-stabbing Motif-y goodness.

Of all three, the incomplete undo is the most jarring. You can undo most operations on the objects, such as moving or resizing a frame, for example, but you can't undo any changes you made to the actual text. The argument from the Scribus development team is that you should currently use an external text editor until you're ready to import the finished text into the project. However, that doesn't help when I want to undo a style change, or restore something that got deleted due to my fat fingers.

Of the three main problems I have with it, only one is getting addressed -- the upcoming release of Scribus-1.3.5 uses qt4 to render the interface, and thus looks a lot less ugly. However, the lack of text undo and the slowness are still there, and I don't think they will get fixed unless Scribus gets an influx of developers (sadly, can't help them myself -- c++ and qt3 is not my idea of fun. ;)). Nonetheless, I think I'll stick to Scribus for my future work, and only use OOo for writing documents with simple layouts.

Using either of them is painful, but at least thus far I know that Scribus is not likely to subtly reformat my document if I save and re-open it later. I guess if I don't find a way to make Scribus do what we need, I'll have to bite my lip and get us a copy InDesign, though the price tag of $600 is currently way more than we can afford, not to mention that I'd have to boot into OS X just to use it.


Unknown said...

> and it still links against qt3,
> meaning that if you don't have KDE3
> installed on your machine, the interface
> will render in all its eye-stabbing
> Motif-y goodness

I'm pretty sure there must be better Qt 3 themes out there that do not require KDE. Even KDE 3/Qt themes only require kdelibs from KDE 3. You can set the current Qt theme using the qtconfig tool.

I suggest filing a bug report with Fedora asking them to see if they can find something better as a default.

Anonymous said...

This is just sad and disheartening, really, truly it is.

I've been experiencing the same thing with Open Software.

With 8+ years of Red Hat/Fedora under my belt, I have recently started to USE the available Open Software, rather than just toy around with it.

And I am finding it quite unstable and/or missing features. Or Just plain painful to use.

Remember a few years back when some Governments / School Districts / etc. were all switching over to OpenOffice? Well some times I wonder how the actual worker are fairing.

Also, recent articles about who fedora is for are suggesting the "Geek", and I agree because actually getting things done OSS is many times unsuccesfull.

And how can one of the flagship products representing OSS ( Openoffice ) perform so badly? It makes me wonder if the OOO developers actually have used their own creation, because if they did, you'd think they have experienced the same things as you.

I have to agree with Red Hat now, Linux is not ready for the Desktop.

Kevin Kofler said...

For your Qt 3 theme problem, try installing qt3-qtconfig and running qtconfig.

Anonymous said...


What could be more stable than TeX?

Máirín said...

I don't know if you have tried Scribus 1.3.5, but mrdocs maintains yum repos for F8 & F9 for folks to try scribus 1.3.5.

I've noticed a lot of improvements in 1.3.5 vs 1.3.4. Actually my only complaint is the slowness. t was a bit of an annoyance but I was happy to put up with it as 1.3.5 made getting the F9 media artwork (sleeve and disc screen print design) and some of the FUDcon Boston posters done very easily.

Don't give up and go InDesign... :( How do we get more developers giving Scribus some love? Is there anything else that can help? Are there any summer of code projects for Scribus?

Máirín said...

Hey anonymous, I can't say that's been true for me in anything but FOSS desktop publishing software, and at least there are FOSS solutions there (for many years there was a very large whole where Scribus was.) I can get the job done with a 100% FOSS workflow. That has not been possible for very long, so that it's possible now == progress! I'm looking forward to that workflow becoming easier and surpassing that available in proprietary solutions.

I don't think OO.o nor Word should be expected to do complex large document layouts that applications such as Scribus or PageMaker or QuarkXpress are meant to do. They are different apps with different target audiences. So don't fault an orange for not tasting like an apple.

Inkscape in many ways trumps Illustrator (if you care about the details I'll bore you with them), and I will take Thunderbird any day over Outlook. We are closer than we have ever been so let's talk about continuing on that path rather than throwing our hands up in dismay as the latter is really not productive especially when the dismay isn't even complemented with concrete things to fix (nevermind lacking suggestions for moving forward).

Sterling Winter said...

As a prospective self-publisher, I'll echo the above recommendation for LyX. If you're not strictly married to the idea of a pure WYSIWYG workflow and you don't mind a slightly higher learning curve, you won't find in the FOSS arena anything as stable as the LyX/LaTeX toolchain, nor anything that produces higher quality results. With practice, it even blows away low-end commercial desktop publishing offerings IMO.

You might find this article a helpful introduction to book publishing with LyX. There are more articles here.

Stephen Smoogen said...

I hate say this, but TeX is about the limit of my book layout. Its a pain in the ass, but its so addictive.. I haven't used LyX as I just pull out my Lion book and sit there playing around with / items until it looks the way I want it.

Word or OpenOffice were never designed for book layout. Most authors have to send their word documents formatted in a 'special' fixed font double spaced format to the publishers who then use the PageMaker or similar tools to make the layout.

Anyway... good luck with the publishing.