February 05, 2009

I guess I'm just a masochist

Last night I attended the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Canada Linux Users Group (OCLUG). While I am technically a member and have been since about 2000, unfortunately I rarely get to go because of other commitments on Tuesday nights. Much of the time the presentations are of a highly technical nature and actually hold little interest for me, as I'm more or less an end-user rather than a hacker.

But last night's meeting was worthwhile for the opening presentation, given by Josh Bush, one of the organizers of linux.conf.au, Australia and New Zealand's annual Linux conference held last month in Hobart, Tasmania. In particular, Josh handed around a copy of the conference program. It was done entirely with open-source software: Gimp and Inkscape for the graphics, OpenOffice for the text, and Scribus to put it all together. It was slick: glossy, four-colour, spiral-bound, and all round quite professional.

I've got Scribus installed, and after seeing what it is actually capable of, today I felt inspired to give it a spin. So I located a sample text (one of my old Sunday school lessons), gave it a quick massage in OpenOffice, and fired up Scribus to have some fun. Or so I hoped.

  • After a quick page setup, I tried to import my OpenOffice exemplar. "Scribus crashes due to Signal #11." Total user experience to date: 5 seconds. Feh.
  • Take two: maybe the first crash was a freak occurrence. But this time, before attempting the import, I saved all my settings. Another "Signal #11." Double feh. But, when I reloaded my Scribus document, I found out it had somehow imported the text anyway. Go figure. Well, at least it saved me the trouble of launching OpenOffice again just for the sake of a quick cut-and-paste.
  • The import completely strips all formatting from the text - including bold or italicized words. So now I will have to go through the whole thing and fix them manually.
  • Except that apparently the programmers never saw fit to include a "bold" or "italic" feature. You can work around it by highlighting the word and changing the font to the italic or bold version, but still.
  • Next step: Create some paragraph styles so I can format the text. Well, isn't that interesting? It appears that the developers who coded the left-margin-indent feature didn't think someone might need to indent the right margin as well.
  • Then I set up some master pages, with appropriate headers and footers and margins for left and right printing. Turns out that applying a new master page over an existing page isn't the cleanest operation.
  • Next, I created enough pages to hold all the text (about 10) and began linking them together so the text would flow properly from page to page. Oops, missed one. Unlink, unlink, unlink, unlink, unlink . . . relink, relink, relink, relink, relink. If you look up "tedious" in the dictionary, there's a picture of the Scribus logo.
  • After more text-wrangling, it finally looked pretty presentable, so I decided to see how it would export to PDF. It turns out Scribus can't embed OpenType fonts; so much for using Minion as the body text. Quick switch to Palatino.

In the end, the "booklet" didn't look half bad for an hour and a half of experimentation, but I don't think Scribus is quite ready for production work yet. Perhaps as a technical writer I'm spoiled by more sophisticated software like FrameMaker, which is geared toward long technical documents, whereas Scribus' niche is more along the lines of PageMaker or QuarkXpress. It's still missing features I would consider essential, such as numbered or bulleted lists, footnotes, cross-references, and indexing, in addition to more basic functionality like the aforementioned bold, italic, and right indent. I'm impressed with Scribus' ability to create slick, spiral-bound, four-colour calendars. I'm less impressed with its ability to produce a short book, especially as it's nearly six years old. But it definitely shows promise, and I can't wait to see what future updates add.