My last rant about Openoffice’s lack of a proper outline mode apparently struck a chord if I judge from the number of pageviews and the reactions I gathered. If, like me, you eagerly await this functionality you will be happy to learn that some recent activity around Openoffice Writer’s longstanding issue 3959 aka “Outline View (aka MS Word)” has provided us with some hope.

Mathias Bauer, project lead of the Application Framework and manager of the teams for the application framework, Math and Writer posted this morning a summary of the state of the visions about Writer Views with an encouraging comment :

“I hope it gives you some understanding why such a feature is quite some work to do and what must be done in Writer before we could even start. I agree with everybody here that this is an important feature and so does the whole team. This is one of the bigger features that we will try to implement as soon as some resources will be available”.

As he says : What users call a “View” in Writer is what the developers call a “Layout” – the orientation and positioning of the textual and non-textual content on an output device. The outline mode would be one of those views.

What Mathias summarized about why there should be an Openoffice Writer outline mode :

  • “Brainstorming” the structure of a document to create initial hierarchy
  • Easy tool for developing and changing document structure
  • Prioritize, arrange and rearrange ideas hierarchical; add details later
  • Focus on content, no layout should distract from content
  • Chose level of details visible in any part of the document

The current state of the proposal about what an Openoffice Writer outline mode should do :

  • Present structure of a document (paragraphs, chapters, sections)
  • Text indentations created from level of structural element
  • Normal text should be displayed below its heading
  • No margins
  • No page breaks visible
  • No preferred way of text wrapping; open for discussions
  • No display of page bound elements (header/footer, objects anchored at a page)
  • No preferred way of treating any non-textual content; why not display it?
  • No preferred way of treating formatting; why not display it?
  • Additional control elements that allow to promote/demote paragraphs, fold/unfold structural elements
  • Creating, moving and deleting structural elements by keyboard commands or D&D

But implementing this feature will not be a trivial endeavour. Some important preliminary infrastructural work is required :

“There is a particular problem in Writer that needs to be solved before it makes sense to implement more views. A Writer documents always has one layout. If the user switches from “Print Layout” to “Online Layout” the old layout is thrown away and the new layout for the complete document is calculated. On switching back the same happens again. This can become quite annoying when new layouts are used that let switching between layouts happen more often. Perhaps it might also be attractive to have two different layouts visible at a time in two different windows, e.g. Outline Layout and Print Layout. [..] So we should investigate first if we can change the code in a way that it can handle more than one Layout at a time. This will make the implementation of new layouts better and their usage more attractive”.

Multiple simultaneous views ! Not only did the OO team listen, but their ambitions go beyond the requests. Of course, acknowledging the requirements is only a first step, but it is an essential one and I am glad that it has been taken.

Mathias prudently added :

“I want to make clear that my comment wasn’t a promise that we start to work on this immediately – we are just busy with other also important things (bug fixing, ODF support, OOXML filter etc.). But I wanted to let you know that the whole Writer team agrees with you that the Outline View is one of the most important missing features in Writer. Unfortunately it is quite some work to do, especially if you don’t want to just hack the feature but develop an improved Writer view concept. So my plan is to implement the necessary preconditions mentioned in the wiki as soon as time will permit and then start writing the specs. ATM I can’t tell when this will happen, so please be patient with us”.

If you want to be informed as soon as this issue moves you can subscribe to Openoffice Writer’s issue 3959. If you can help in any way, please be sure to leave a note about it !