LibreOffice's Legacy Debt

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 30, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

LibreOffice has had so many changes of name that its age is hidden. However, go back through Oracle OpenOffice and, StarOffice, StarDivision and StarWriter, and the word processor is over thirty years old. Probably, very little of the code written in 1985 remains in use, but many of the features do -- and that means that LibreOffice is carrying a legacy code debt that is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Obviously, some features never age or go out of fashion. Character and paragraph styles, for example, should always remain useful. However, to understand why this legacy debt matters, you have to have survived the 1980s.

The 1980s were when word processors first arrived on everybody's desktop. Before then, most people used monospaced typewriters with a single font. A few top end typewriters had variable spaced fonts and allowed the changing of fonts, but not many. To indicate italics, you underlined. Full justification was almost unheard of. Careful selection of a paperweight and a trained typist could make the typing even, but even the best-typed document looked less professional than one set professionally. Typing was an intermediate step between handwritten manuscripts and professional -- the best the average academic or writer could do for over a century.

Then word processors arrived. Suddenly, formatting that was mostly reserved for professional printers was in everybody's reach. Users had dozens of new options, and they went a little crazy.
Suddenly, documents went from one to dozens of fonts, each with its own color and weight, and tweaked to have shadows and outlines, until, in some cases, playing with all the new formatting options destroyed legibility. Gradually, common sense reasserted itself, and users learned, for example, to restrict themselves to a couple of fonts per document. But it took over a decade, and in the meantime, over-design was too often the norm.

Through no fault of its own, StarWriter was part of this explosion of options. To be competitive, like every other word processor of the mid-1980s, it included every imaginable feature, whether it made sense at all.

Legacies today
Thirty-one years later, LibreOffice continues to support features that no one with any knowledge of design is likely to use -- features that are, essentially, atrocities waiting to happen.
For example, on the Alignment tab of each paragraph style, users are provided with a series of tactics to handle a fully justified paragraph with an uneven final line -- which, statistically, is almost all of them. The only reasonable aesthetic choice is justify the final line, putting up with minor imperfections in word and letter spacing, or align the final line to the left. Yet the tab also gives the options of centering the line or of distributing a single word across the entire final line, two hasty repairs sometimes used in newspapers when they were set by hand.

In more than fifteen years, the only time these legacy options came in handy for me was when I needed to illustrated them in my LibreOffice book. I suspect I may have been the only one to find them useful in all that time. Yet they persist in LibreOffice Writer, on the off chance that they may become useful again.

Similarly, in page styles, headers and footers have the option of adding a shadow. This was a popular option in 1985, but today only marks the design as hopelessly obsolete. Not that there is anything wrong with shadows as such, but they do nothing to make the headers or footers more readable, and only clutter the page.

Another cluster of anachronisms is on the Font Effect tab. If you are trying to degrade text on the page, Embossed, Engraved, and Shadow are ideal selections, but none have functioned for several releases(although displaying ) and apparently none have been missed. The tab also includes ShadoBlink, a tag excluded years ago from HTML because of is extreme annoyance. Of the other items on the tab, only Font Color and Small Capitals are useful for everyday formatting, while Hide enables single-sourcing (the maintenance of two versions of the same document in a single file), a specialty use that most users are ever likely to encounter. Otherwise, at least a quarter of the options on the tab are part of the legacy debt, apparently retained only on the remote chance that someone, some decade, will require them for backward compatibility.

As a user, I am usually grateful for backward compatibility. However, retaining such legacy features also tempts users to try them, which does nothing to improve design. By definition, such features are over-design, adding formatting that never enhances a text. So, by definition, they can be removed without major effect. I can only hope that LibreOffice removes the temptation to over-design eventually --a priority that, to my mind, is much higher than backwards compatibility with obsolete features.

comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe to our Linux Newsletters
Find Linux and Open Source Jobs
Subscribe to our ADMIN Newsletters

Support Our Work

Linux Magazine content is made possible with support from readers like you. Please consider contributing when you’ve found an article to be beneficial.

Learn More