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Archive for April, 2008

Comics have long been used as supplementary materials for  education.  My twenty-years-old collection of Gospel comics, Noli Me Tangere comics and El Filibusterismo comics – required readings during my high school years, are still stacked in my basement and I just can’t bear to throw them away.  For decades, comics like these have made learning  more enjoyable and achievable.  Though commonly available for major subjects like Araling Panlipunan, Religion, Science, etc.,   I have never , in the past few decades, heard of any published comic book  that was designed for teaching Computer subjects. Thus, I was ecstatic when I very recently discovered a  new comic book for Linux learners…sweet!   Hackett and Bankwell, written by Jeremiah Gray, and released by Intarcorp Ltd.,  revolves around the Linux  operating system.  Its objective  is to help educate new Linux users , in order to promote the widespread acceptance of the Linux platform. 

 

The first issue covers topics including UNIX, the General Public License, Cyber crime, open source, binary files, source code and Open Office.org, among others. The website (http://www.hackettandbankwell.com/) offers links to valuable learning resources to  supplement the reading.  Mind you, it is not a dumbed down version of a Linux training guide.

 

The comedic approach of  Hackett and Bankwell is essential in motivating new users to read on, without fear of encountering complex  technical jargon. The main characters  of the comic are Woody Hackett ,  a penguin that has a striking resemblance to the Linux icon, Tux ,  a young hacker named Jerome Bankwell,  Kaori , a young lady who is new to Linux,  and to whom  Hackett  serves as a mentor, and a system administrator. The first issue shows the two main characters on an early morning telephone conversation, where Bankwell presumably requested the penguin to   assist Kaori and her friend in installing Ubuntu.  Hackett explains to an apprehensive Kaori  that Linux is not as complicated as it seems, particularly because it uses a graphical user interface. They further discuss distros ( distributions) , disk partitioning and the steps to install Ubuntu.  Hackett even suggests the use of thumb drives to back up files instead of CD’s because plastics are bad for the environment.  The strip ends with   a loud crash  that leaves readers pining for the continuation in the next issue.

 

The comic book is a little bit expensive, though. One issue costs USD $11.99 + $6.50 for international shipping. That’s P758 per copy, which I am not sure parents would like to add to the cost of their book fees.  However, I think this would be a fine investment for schools .  Compared to  the huge amount of savings from  replacing proprietary software with Linux, the cost of the comic book tends to be immaterial.

 

The comic is the first of its kind to come out in print for educational use. However, other Linux-related comics have been in existence online many years earlier. One such popular comic book is  Hackles, named after its main character , a programmer dog who codes and drinks coffee in an office. He is joined by a cat, a mouse, a pig , a rabbit, a robot and a couple of penguins named Peter and Percy, network administrators  who also resemble the famed Linux penguin. This online comic  (http://hackles.org/) had been popular among Linux fans from 2001- 2004 but had sadly been discontinued. 

 

I am pleased that traditional reading materials like comics are making its presence felt in open source education.  Computer  teachers are often faced with huge pressure to learn new technologies ahead of their students.   Textbooks, though just hot off the press at the beginning of the school year, could not fill the need for  current information. On top of that, the technical jargon that  dominates its pages make it rather unappealing to young students .   Teachers thus have to  scour the Internet for more interesting, up-to-date  learning materials on Linux and open source.   The fact that computing technologies change at lightning speed  makes it very difficult for often resource-deprived teachers to catch up.  Often, more tech savvy students would be fashioning the latest tech gadget or tinkering with a newly released operating system before teachers have ever even read about it. Alternative learning materials like comics  are a welcome resource for teachers struggling to keep their classes both fun and interesting. 

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“Open source software will be key to the adoption of software as a service (SaaS) over the next few years to keep costs down and make sharing of applications easier.  By 2010, around 90 per cent of SaaS providers will be using open source within their technology ‘stacks’ – operating systems, application servers and databases “ , according to analyst house Gartner.

 

What is “software as a service?”

SaaS is a software application delivery model  where a service provider  hosts ‘on-demand’  software that  is accessible  through a browser. Examples of SaaS vendors are  Writely.com , which offers a wordprocessing application that can  be likened to Microsoft Word. It is hosted by Google, so  you can access it and continue working on your document virtually. Typically, only a single  file version is available, so online collaboration is a lot easier.  

 

SaaS is generally associated with business software.  As opposed to proprietary business software that is installed on a personal computer, SaaS software is  low cost and is less  complex.  This is different from Web 2.0 software , which is consumer-oriented  and web-native . SaaS applications are generally priced on a per-user basis. Thus, the SaaS model is suitable for businesses that are not willing to invest a lot of money and effort into software deployment, but have substantial computing needs. 

 

SaaS and Open Source

Gartner  concludes that at least 30 per cent (30%) of each individual SaaS application provided by vendors until 2010 will be made up of open source . The analyst house predicts that users will increasingly turn to ‘application platform as a service’ providers to bring in open source to help share software applications.

 

Because the use of  freely available open source applications cuts down costs, more  SaaS vendors are predicted to incorporate it more fully into their product lines.  Open source provides redundancy  tools, which  not  only reduces time to market , it also reduces software development cost and effort involved in  building and deploying a new solution as a SaaS solution.   When this is the case,  software acquisition costs should ideally, but not necessarily be reduced.  Further,  as more businesses adopt SaaS applications, the applications exchange will continue to grow.

 

The problem with SaaS 

Since SaaS is hosted by an external entity, it was originally considered a potential security and operational risk. Of course, businesses would rather  keep their information to themselves rather than entrust it to an external entity.  However, SaaS providers argue that their applications are more secure than their proprietary software counterparts, partly because it uses open source components, which leads to a  level of service that is believed to be superior in many cases to closed source applications.  

 

The future of SaaS

 

 Despite security concerns, the popularity of “software as a service” will continue to grow due to   several important factors.  The pervasiveness of the computer,   the availability of quality open source applications  ,  affordable  hardware , low cost bandwidth and the emergence of enablement technology that  allows other vendors to quickly build SaaS applications are some of the reasons why SaaS will continue to flourish in the coming years. 

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OpenOffice.org  Impress, the presentation application of OpenOffice.org, has a few cool, new extensions that you might find very useful. If you’ve been using  proprietary presentation applications and find  OpenOffice.org Impress lacking in the  bells and whistles that you used to enjoy , I am sure you will find these extensions helpful in closing that functionality gap.

 

eVoice

 

eVoice 1.0.0 is an extension that lets users   add  sound clips to each slide.   While it is ideal  for adding narration,  you can also use it to record sound clips directly from a sound system or MP3 player.   All you need is a   microphone and  sound card , and  a two-way jack to input the music.  Once you install eVoice, the  eVoice item appears on the top level of menus. To use it,  select Insert . A dialog box appears  with options to Record, Stop, Play, and Pause.  

 

Recordings are represented by  a gray object that can be  dragged and dropped around the slide as you   design your slide layouts.  When you run the slide show, the gray object becomes invisible . The limitation with adding sound files is that eVoice only allows  one sound clip per slide.  Adding  a second  sound clip will delete the first. 

 

eVoice  will work on  OpenOffice.org 2.1 and   StarOffice 8 Update 5 or higher running on Windows and  Linux operating systems. Its filesize is less than 200 KB.

 

Sun Presentation Minimizer

 

Sun Presentation Minimizer by Sun Microsystems, Inc. reduces the size of a presentation. Minimizing the file size results in maximizing the speed of your slide show . It also  makes your presentation easier to upload onto a web site and faster to download.

 

When you install Sun Presentation Manager, you will find an item on the Tool menu which you can access easily. When you click on this option, a wizard appears, which provides   step by step directions for   reducing the size of your slide show. Files are compressed by   removing unnecessary items, such as unused master files or hidden files and the cropped areas of photos. It  reduces the resolution of images and graphics and converts OLE objects into  static images , which makes them uneditable.

 

You have the option of specifying  which of these file-reducing measures to implement. There are also pre-set options from the first slide from which you can choose. You can even   save your own current options as a pre-set.

 

Generally, the Sun PPT minimizer  is most effective on slide shows that are packed with embedded objects and graphics.  The sizes of  presentations can be reduced from   15-75% of the original size, depending on the contents of the original slide show. The amount of space you are saving is indicated in the wizard.  It  saves the reduced file under a different filename so you do not accidentally overwrite the original.

 

It is compatible with OpenOffice.org 2.3 and StarOffice 8 Update 8. The file sizes vary from 300 KB to 1 MB depending on the operating system .

 

One more thing- the Sun Presentation Minimizer  also works on Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.

 

PhotoAlbum

 

PhotoAlbum 0.4.0 lets users  convert a set of photos saved onto a folder into a simple slide show in  just four clicks.

 

To begin using it,  download the extension, open the PhotoAlbumInstaller_1-2.sxc file, and press the Install button. The Photo Album menu is added by  default as Top Menu ‘Photo Album’ . Then restart OpenOffice.org. If the Photo Album menu doesn’t appear, quit OpenOffice.org and the Quickstarter, then launch them again. 

 

Make sure that   the images you plan to include in the slide show are saved  into a separate directory.   Images are embedded  in numeric then in alphabetical order so ensure that you arrange the images accordingly (e.g., in numerical order such as 1.jpg, 2.jpg,…and so on  or according to  alphabetical order , such as a.jpg, b.jpg,…..and so  on. )

 

Access  OpenOffice.org then go to Photo Album- Create Photo Album. Note that the “Photo Album” menu appears on all OpenOffice,org applications – not just Impress.  Select the  directory where you saved your images. The extension automatically  creates an album for you on Impress with one image per slide, and filling the entire slide. 

 

Slide transitions are set to display random transitions and is set to loop constantly by default.  Nonetheless, you can edit these settings after you create the album. Slide transitions are set from Slide Show – Slide Transitions, and the loopback from Slide Show – Slide Show Settings – Type.

 

PhotoAlbum makes it easy for you add multiple  images to a presentation. Thus, it saves you the trouble of having to  select Insert – Picture-From File for each and every image.   Photo Album is system independent and is only 5.88 KB.

 

OpenOffice.org extensions can be downloaded from the OpenOffice.org extensions repository at:

http://extensions.services.openoffice.org/

 

 

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The newly-released OpenOffice.org 2.4 comes with a number of  bug fixes, performance improvements and  new features ,  which include 3D slide transitions,   PDF export enhancements , improved language spell checking, enhanced formula inputs and chart displays and the  integration of extensions into the Help feature. Some of the more notable improvements are found in Calc: the  six new data label options for charts , display equations for regression lines and reverse axis in charts.

 

Six  months from now, an even better version, OpenOffice.org 3,  is scheduled for release.   Anticipated to be a huge improvement from  OpenOffice.org 2.x  , OpenOffice.org Ninja  (www.oooninja.com) couldn’t wait to share how they think it will turn out. Here is a summary of OpenOffice.org 3.0’s new features based on its alpha release.  

 

1) Microsoft Office 2007 file format support

OpenOffice.org 3 will offer native read and write support for  .docx, .pptx, and .xlsx files.

 

2) The Start up screens

The splash screen is the first  visual feedback that users get so they know that OpenOffice.org is starting to load. The   splash screen and about dialog had been redesigned to look bolder,  and more professional.

 

In  the current version of OpenOffice.org , new applications are typically started from within any module . For example, through Writer, you can select Calc from the drop down list on Writer’s main menu . However, when you start   OpenOffice.org 3 without a document and without a module, ( for example, Writer or Calc),  the Start Center allows you to select the application directly.  (See screenshot from OOONinja)  The Start Center  is a window where you can select the application you wish to use , such as text, presentation, spreadsheet, drawing, database, and other options instantly.

 

3) Writer

You can view multiple pages in Writer , using side by side or book layout.  You can also add  different – colored notepads at the margins of the document   for comments, corrections, or questions.

 

4) Calc

 

Calc will boast of a linear optimizarion solver, which finds a set of input values that maximize or minimize an objective function, while satisfying a set of constraints. There will also be a new set of themes including  translucence and glass effects for column and row headers. Moreover,  Calc 3.0 extends the maximum columns from 256 to 1024.

 

5) Impress

Currently, tables are embedded as OLE objects in Impress.  In the upcoming version, native tables could be created directly in Impress.  A new Table Design panel  also makes it easy to apply colors.

 

There are even more features which are currently being developed:

 

Official support for Mac using the  Aqua interface

Simultaneous editing of spreadsheets by multiple users

Cross-references to headings

Updates to embedded fields in mail merges from Calc

Displaying PostScript OpenType fonts on Linux and Solaris

Titles for secondary axes in charts

 

If you can’t wait to try out OpenOffice.org 3.0, you can download it from   OpenOffice.org mirrors in the developer/DEV300_* subdirectory  <http://distribution.openoffice.org/mirrors/

 

Note, however,  that  this version is an alpha build and is only intended for testing purposes. Download at your own risk.

 

For more details and screenshots, visit OpenOffice.org Ninja  (www.oooninja.com).

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If you are an OpenOffice.org user who  frequently accesses a   document, such as your research paper, your grading sheet or your  presentation,  you will surely find the Bookmarks Menu extension in OpenOffice.org useful.

 

The Bookmarks Menu works like the  Bookmarks tool (Favorites for Internet Explorer) in your web browser.  However,  it is capable of bookmarking a variety of entries : documents,  webpages, macros and shell commands from within OpenOffice.org. It is one of the most recently added extensions in the OpenOffice.org extensions repository .

 

Download Bookmarks Menu 0.3.2   from  http://extensions.services.openoffice.org/project/bookmarksmenu  

 

To install it, launch OpenOffice.org then  choose Tools > Extension Manager (Package Manager in older versions of OpenOffice.org). Select the //My Extensions// section, and press the Add button. Select the   BookmarksMenu-0.3.2.oxt package , and press OK. Then restart OpenOffice.org.

 

After launching OOo, select  Tools – Add-Ons – Bookmarks Menu  to execute the macro . You can click on  the help button of the dialog to access the documentation for the extension. Press OK. The   Bookmarks Menu is added to  the toolbar. 

 

When you click on the Bookmarks bar,   two  sub-menus appear: Bookmark This Document and Edit Bookmarks. Bookmark This Document   bookmarks the  document that is  currently open and saves its name on the Bookmarks bar.   This is similar to the  Recent Documents feature but has more to offer. It does not only bookmark documents, it also bookmarks macros, web pages and shell commands. It also allows you to sort the bookmarked items , which the Recent Documents option could not do.

To bookmark a document, first open the document.  Then choose “Bookmark This Document” on the toolbar.  

 

The  Edit Bookmarks submenu lets you add entries other than documents. Click on Edit Bookmarks under the Bookmarks Menu tool. Then click the  “New” button. Edit its elements on the opened dialog.  Enter the   “Label”, select the  “Type”,  enter the “URL” and “Arguments” if you need. Then click OK. 

 

You will find the entry under the Bookmarks tool in the toolbar.

 

Bookmarking shell commands   allows you to  send commands to external applications. For example, when you bookmark a web page, OpenOffice.org opens the default web browser and accesses the URL you bookmarked.

 

You can also export your shell commands and settings in the Edit Bookmarks menu, which can be helpful if you are using the Bookmarks menu extension on several machines.

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Democracy entails openness. In a democratic country, government documents should be open to public scrutiny and thus,  freely accessible  by anyone regardless of the person’s software choice.

 

Currently, many government agencies in this country still exchange, archive and   distribute information using proprietary file formats such as .doc. .docx, .xls, .ppt and others.  

 

Supposedly publicly-accessible documents such as information papers,  application forms , permits,  data sheets, annual reports, and other downloadable forms are still available exclusively in MS Word or MS Excel format, requiring users to download viewers or purchase proprietary software should they need to edit these documents for research or academic purposes.

Will the Philippine government ever adopt policies to endorse the use of Open Document Format (ODF) in document creation and exchange?   Currently, a handful of schools,  government agencies and private companies  have looked into its use. However,  the adoption of ODF should occur on   a national level.

 

 

What is ODF?

The OpenDocument format (ODF) is a file format for electronic office documents that was approved as an international standard (ISO 26300:2006) in May 2006.  It is used in  proprietary and non-proprietary software. Prominent office suites supporting OpenDocument format include IBM Lotus Notes 8 ,  OpenOffice.org, NeoOffice, StarOffice, Google Docs, and IBM Lotus Symphony.  Some of the most common filename extensions used for OpenDocument documents are:

.odt for word processing (text) documents

.ods for spreadsheets

.odp for presentations

.odg for graphics

.odf for formulae, mathematical equations

 

Why ODF?

ODF  is growing in popularity among governments due to its   benefits of access, choice, interoperability and cost savings. 

 

The availability of information to the general public is only one aspect of accessibility. Another aspect is the availability of information across agencies ,  across time and across computing technologies. ODF guarantees long-term access to data that governments need.  Documents should   be readable after several decades or centuries and accessible to citizens ,  without regard for the kind of software  they use now  or will use then.    Users will not have to upgrade their current application only so that they could read a document saved in a newer version of software. In addition, files saved in ODF can be accessible by majority of software- proprietary or non proprietary, and across different system platforms. That’s freedom of choice at work. 

 

Several applications that use ODF are also open source, and available at no cost.  Since no money is shelled out for licensing costs, government budget could be allocated to other needs.  Vendor lock-in is also prevented,  which typically leads to bribery and corruption among  decision makers in government.   

 

Openness is the most important aspect of the ODF.  As opposed to proprietary file formats, which are  protected by private companies under lock and key,  the source code for Open Document Format  is readily available and can be put under scrutiny. It is backed by standards groups, ISO and OASIS  and not controlled by any company with some  form of  interest.

 

ODF – a global perspective  

 

National, regional and state governments all over the world  have adopted Open Document format as the preferred standard  for the creation and exchange of  documents. Based on the ODF Annual report for 2007, twelve national, seven regional, and several local governments have now adopted pro-ODF policies, in addition to more than 50 government agencies. 

 

Government action on the adoption of ODF generally take the form of laws, executive decisions, interoperability frameworks, or policy statements.  

  

Five countries, including the Netherlands, South Africa, Malaysia, Norway, and Croatia – adopted plans requiring the use of ODF for document exchange between government agencies , with its constituents and other external entities.  Japan and Russia  adopted  procurement preferences for products adhering to open standards,  while Poland approved a national plan recommending the use of open, publicly-available IT standards. Consistent with the trend at the national level, three regional governments – Kerala (a state in southwestern India), Misiones (a province in northeast Argentina), and Paraná (a state in southern Brazil) – formally adopted policies requiring the use of ODF.

 

Five U.S. state legislatures considered proposals to require the use of an open format. These include California, Texas, New York, and Florida – as well as Minnesota.  
Even presidential hopeful  and  US Senator Obama endorses ODF as part of his campaign:”We have to use technology to open up our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in history has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to sunlight. As president, I’ll change that. I’ll put government data online in universally accessible formats”  

 

This makes me wonder -when will  the Philippine government ever  consider reaping the benefits of ODF?

 

 

Knowing is not enough; we must apply! (Goethe) 

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Just because a few countries in Asia have jumped onto the OOXML bandwagon does not mean that joining them is a good idea. 

 

The Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century brought about mass production,  increased productivity and  gas powered vehicles. One century later,  this is also blamed  for the the marked increase in the emission of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) .  Today, we realize that economic progress hardly makes up for the damage we caused our environment. 

 

Years ago, the cigarette smoking culture pervaded society.  Decades later, it is widely recognized as the number one cause of lung cancer.  For many, this discovery was too late.

 

What lesson have we learned from these? Just because it’s popular does not mean it’s right. 

 

Windows is still the most widely used operating system in this country and Microsoft Office is the most popular office suite. Almost everybody knows what .doc, .xls., .ppt stand for but how many people have heard of .odt , .ods, and. odi  ?

 

How about ODF and OOXML?

 

 

 

What’s the difference?

 

First, it must be made clear that both OpenDocument Format (“ODF”) and Office Open XML (“OOXML”) are XML-based formats.  As many critics point out, the main difference is in the level of “openness”.  Openness is important because an open, XML-based standard for displaying and storing data files allows many possibilities in terms of   data storage and document exchange among office applications (wordprocessing, spreadsheet, presentations, etc. ).

 

Below are some of the differences:

 

ODF is developed and maintained by several organizations and individuals using and  open process that protects against control by a single entity. OOXML is owned, maintained an controlled by a single organization- Microsoft. Thus, it is  less open in its development and maintenance, despite being submitted to a formal standards body. 

 

ODF is an ISO approved standard (ODF, ISO/IEC 26300, full name: OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications)   file format for electronic office documents, while OOXML  failed to be recognized as an ISO standard, mainly because it overlaps  the OpenDocument format .

 

ODF is an   openly available standard, published fully in a document that is freely available and easy to comprehend. This openness and availability is evidenced by the huge number of competing applications that use ODF. In contrast, OOXML is not  legally and practically as easy to implement  due to its  complexity, extraordinary length, technical omissions, and  dependence on a single vendor.

 

ODF is the only format that are not restricted  by intellectual property rights (IPR)  , as certified by the Software Freedom Law Center. On the other hand, many elements designed into the OOXML formats but left undefined in the OOXML specification require behaviors upon document files that only Microsoft Office applications can provide. This means that data is inaccessible  on applications other than Microsoft Office or those supporting OOXML.

 

Overall,  ODF  is revealed as sufficiently open while   OOXML shows relative weakness that have been the cause for concern in adoption as a global standard. 

 

 

 

Philippines votes “no”

 

OOXML  lost its initial bid for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification, after failing to secure enough votes from participating countries in September.

The Philippines was one of the countries which voted “no” , with clarifications on the use of OOXML. The panel consisted of representatives from the DTI’s Bureau of Products and Standards and the National Computer Center. Personally, I agree with this decision. 

 

As a  result of this decision, Microsoft and industry body Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) have teamed up to drive the adoption of Office Open XML in the Philippines.  I trust that the panel will continue to make the right decision despite lobbying pressures as they get these much needed clarifications.

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