Replacing FrameMaker with OpenOffice.org Writer

Replace Adobe FrameMaker with OpenOffice.org Writer? Most people’s first reaction is amused disbelief. “FrameMaker is a hugely capable publishing product,” my editor at Newsforge admonished me. “OOo is a marginally competent word processor.” However, a functional comparison of several important desktop publishing features in both products shows that the products are more comparable than you might think.

FrameMaker has a reputation far out of keeping with its reality. While FrameMaker remains a stable and flexible product, its heyday is long past, and its features have not kept pace with modern expectations.

Moreover, its reputation is generally misplaced. Contrary to common assumptions, FrameMaker is not a desktop publishing program. Instead, it is a niche product for long documents, such as books, technical manuals, and dissertations. While brochures and posters can be done in FrameMaker (I’ve done both), it is not a designer’s first choice of tools for these jobs. Similarly, while OpenOffice.org’s Writer is often described as a Microsoft Word clone because of obvious borrowings in its interface, it would be more accurate to describe it as a cross between Microsoft Word and Microsoft Publisher. In other words, both FrameMaker and OpenOffice.org are publishing programs with limited capabilities compared to Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress. From this perspective, a comparison is not as unlikely as you might think.

Many FrameMaker users have considered FrameMaker an orphaned product since Adobe purchased it a decade ago. FrameMaker has never been integrated with the Adobe product line. FrameMaker files, for example, cannot be shared with PhotoShop or Illustrator, while PhotoShop and Illustrator exchange files almost seamlessly. Rumors fly regularly about the doom of FrameMaker, and they finally seem to be coming true. A beta port to Linux a few years ago was abandoned, and development on the Mac has ceased altogether. Adobe’s current plans are to merge FrameMaker’s features with those of InDesign, a move that many fear will weaken both products.

I considered all the reasons commonly cited in the North American tech-writer community for using FrameMaker rather than Microsoft Word, as well as the features I had come to rely on during 10 years of writing and designing in FrameMaker:

  • Styles
  • Indexes and tables of contents
  • Cross-references
  • Conditional Text
  • Sideheads
  • Long documents

In each category, I considered both functionality and ease of use, then made a verdict about which software was preferable. To say the least, the results were unexpected.

Styles

OpenOffice.org and FrameMaker are both style-oriented programs–that is, both strongly encourage users to tag text and objects with pre-defined lists of format options, rather than formatting them manually. Both assume that users will employ styles, and some features are difficult if not impossible to use without styles. The two programs’ implementations of styles are extremely similar. Both, for example, use floating windows for applying styles, although FrameMaker has separate windows for paragraph and character styles, where Writer uses only the Stylist with its changeable views. Of the two implementations, Writer’s Stylist is easier to use. Not only can you use it to add styles, but its different views let you locate particular styles or types of styles more quickly. Both also have a mechanism for transferring styles between files: in FrameMaker, it’s File > Import > Formats, and in Writer it’s Format > Styles > Load.

At first, the types of styles offered seems to give Writer an enormous advantage. The Stylist lists character, paragraph, frame, page, and numbering styles, while FrameMaker’s style lists are confined to character and paragraph styles. However, the first impression is deceiving. The convenience of Writer’s page styles is matched by FrameMaker’s master pages, or pre-defined page designs–a concept that OpenOffice.org also uses, but only in the Draw and Impress applications. Like Writer’s page styles, FrameMaker’s master pages are a set of pre-defined formats that determine the positions of margins and headers and footers. Similarly, although FrameMaker does not offer lists as a separate type of style, paragraph styles can create different types of lists using a series of building blocks that, although hard to master, provide considerable customization. In fact, FrameMaker’s use of styles to mark the resetting of numbered paragraph styles is much more convenient than Writer’s Numbering tool bar controls. On the other hand, rearranging list items is much easier in Writer. Similarly, although FrameMaker fails to live up to its name by providing frame styles, the fact that users can make frames part of master page designs goes a long way towards canceling the advantages of Writer’s frame styles.

In both programs, tables are also treated more or less as styles. In FrameMaker, table styles are available from the Table menu, and paragraph styles have a tab for how the style should behave in a table. Writer, by contrast, allows you to store Autoformats from the Format menu, which can be applied in much the same way as styles, although they are less convenient to update.

A point by point comparison of style settings is almost impossible, partly because the two programs are organized differently, and partly because there are so many settings. Both Writer and FrameMaker offer enough settings that, while neither is a top-end DTP application, neither is a word processor like Microsoft Word, either. You could single out individual features as better in one program, such as FrameMaker’s small capitals and kerning or Writer’s background settings or footnotes, but in nearly every case, either workarounds exist in the weaker program, or advantages in one area are nullified by drawbacks in other areas.

Verdict: This category is a photo-finish. Writer wins for two reasons. First, its tools are more centralized and easier to use. Second, Writer’s styles are hierarchical, so that child styles inherit the features of parents. This feature saves designers’ time, and is one that FrameMaker users have wanted for years.

Indexes and tables of contents

In FrameMaker, users must enter index markers manually through a small window. You can add multiple entries and different levels of entries, depending on whether text is separated by a semi-colon or a colon, but this method is so cumbersome that many experienced FrameMaker users buy the third-party IXgen plug-in instead.

FrameMaker tables of contents (TOCs) are much easier to generate, since they are based on styles — by default, on Header styles. Both Indexes and TOCs are stored in separate files. In both, the structure of entries is determined by building blocks that can be manipulated from the reference pages, while the format of entries is determined by the styles that are automatically used by them. Both structure and formatting of entries can be customized, although new users may be baffled by the structural building blocks.

By contrast, adding index markers in Writer is much easier. Multiple and tiered entries are usually entered using separate fields, and the window has an option for marking all similar text automatically, as well as for limiting the automatic markers to those that match the case of the original and are whole words. Alternatively, you can use a
concordance file, which is a list of words that you want in the index that can be applied against a document to create an index that includes every occurence of each word on it. While not as handy as IXgen, these tools are significantly easier than FrameMaker’s native ones.

Tables of contents are handled much as the same as in FrameMaker, although you can also use markers. Insert > Indexes and Tables > Insert Index/Table is used to structure indexes and TOCs, and, like FrameMaker, Writer uses separate styles to format entries. The options for structuring an index or TOC are far more extensive than in FrameMaker, and include protection from manual changes, the number of columns used, and the background. Interestingly, Writer includes a visual version of FrameMaker’s building blocks for structuring entries
that is far easier to use.

As with Microsoft Word, indexes and TOCs in Writer are fields that are added to documents. If they are used in master documents, they are part of the master document, rather than a separate file. This arrangement makes it much easier for Writer to provide a separate index or TOC for part of a document than FrameMaker, in which these features are designed to be used only with an entire book.

Verdict: Writer. Although FrameMaker’s indexes and tables of contents can be tweaked by experts to do all that Writer’s can, Writer’s tools are easier to use and quicker to understand. Once users get over the conceptual difficulty that Writer treats indexes and TOCs–as well as bibliographies–as variations of the same tool, they find
Writer’s organization and centralization are a step beyond FrameMaker’s equivalents in usability.

Cross-references

Cross-references are one of FrameMaker’s greatest strengths. Cross-references in FrameMaker are created out of building blocks and manually added text, and different styles of cross-references can be saved and stored for later use. At first glance, Writer lacks this convenience. As in FrameMaker, items can be referenced in full, or by page number or chapters, but the cross-reference window — really, just one tab of the Fields window — offers no way to store a format, let alone the text that connects these building blocks. Users can get something of FrameMaker’s functionality by selecting Insert > Fields > Other > Variable, and creating User Fields with phrases such as “For more information, see,” but using this kludge requires jumping back and forth between tabs in the Field window several times to make one cross-reference.

Verdict: FrameMaker, for greater convenience.

Conditional text

Conditional text is paragraphs that can be prevented from displaying or printing. It is usually used for maintaining multiple versions of a document in the same file. For example, a company with different versions of its software for different customers might use conditional text when producing a manual for one customer to hide paragraphs
specific to another customer.

In FrameMaker, you set up conditional text by applying a tag. Although the feature has a poor interface design and can be difficult to learn, once you understand it, hiding or revealing a paragraph is simply a matter of checking or unchecking a box.

In Writer, several different types of conditional text are available. Three are found in Insert > Fields > Other > Functions. Using a field that is actually called Conditional Text, you can insert two alternate texts in Writer. Alternatively, you can use Hidden Text and Hidden Paragraph fields on anything from a single word to multiple
paragraphs. A fourth type of conditional case allows you to define areas of a document as sections, which can be hidden by selecting a check box and setting a condition, then password-protected. Hidden sections are especially useful in master documents, where each sub-document is treated as a section.

In all four types, conditions can vary from a simple off/on to a complete equation — in fact, you can insert a condition elsewhere in white text against a white background if you want to protect the conditional text against tampering. However, few users are likely to go to such trouble. What is more to the point is that, unlike FrameMaker conditional text, each of these types of conditional text must be turned on or off separately. The fact that the field-based conditional text has arrow buttons to navigate to the next or previous field of the same type does not do much to help, and all these choices are extremely poorly documented in Writer.

Verdict: Both FrameMaker’s and Writer’s conditional text tools could use improvement. However, because they are simpler, FrameMaker’s are more practical. In Writer, remembering to turn conditional text on or off quickly becomes a nightmare, especially if more than one type is used. Using only one type of conditional text helps, but not enough.

Sideheads

In page design, sideheads are an area, usually on the left margin, reserved for headings. The body of the document is printed on the remaining width of the page. Sideheads are especially popular in technical manuals, because they shorten the line-length of the body text, making it easier to read, and make headings easier to scan.

In FrameMaker, sideheads are applied to a single text flow. On the screen, a dotted line divides and the body of the document, and all paragraphs not marked to be included in the sidehead automatically start to the right of the divider. This is a marked improvement over word processors like Microsoft Word. The average word processor can only simulate sideheads, usually by using a table with invisible borders, or callouts. I know of at least two companies who used FrameMaker largely because of its ability to produce true sideheads.

Writer falls between FrameMaker and word processors in the production of sideheads. If body text styles are set with an indent, and the Marginalia frame style is used for Headings, then you can easily produce sideheads, but this tactic does require more setting up than FrameMaker’s sideheads.

Verdict: FrameMaker

Long documents

Both FrameMaker and Writer have a concept of a file that is a container for other files. These types of file is specifically meant for managing long documents. In both programs, these container documents make setting up chapters easier, and they allow you to open the component files and work from them instead of a single big file, making for quicker, more stable editing.

In FrameMaker, this type of file is known as a book file. FrameMaker book files are famously stable; back in the days when 32 megabytes was a lot of RAM for a workstation, I once edited a book file comprised of more than 800 files, each several megabytes in size, repeatedly for several months without encountering any problems. Updating was slow,
but the book file never crashed.

In Writer, the equivalent of FrameMaker’s book files is a master document. Writer’s term is borrowed from Microsoft Word. Microsoft Word’s master document is notoriously prone to crashes that corrupt the component files, and some users have wondered if the similarity went beyond names to lack of usability in Writer. They don’t. Writer master documents sometimes crashed in early versions of the software, but that was a couple of years ago, and, even then, the sub-documents were not affected. In the 1.1.x releases, OpenOffice.org has matched FrameMaker’s book files for reliability.

The match is just as close in features. Both products allow searching through all the sub-documents at once, rearranging sub-documents, and the addition of new sub-documents. The main difference is that, while indexes and TOCs are separate files added to a FrameMaker book file, in a Writer master document, they are fields in the master document itself. This difference has no real effect on functionality of either program.

Verdict: Tie

Drawing tools

Both FrameMaker and OOo Writer have a set of basic drawing tools suitable for drawing simple diagrams, including callouts. In both, the drawing tools are available from floating windows. The tools are roughly comparable, although Writer includes animated and graphical text, and has easy access to the fuller features of Draw.

Verdict: Tie

Unique features

I could find no features that FrameMaker had that Writer entirely lacked. By contrast, Writer has several that FrameMaker does not, including Autotext and AutoCorrect/Autoformat, and a chart mode. However, probably the most important feature is the ability to write and record macros. True, the Unix versions of FrameMaker have these abilities, but most FrameMaker users are on Windows, where scripting is only available as a third-party add-on. FrameMaker users have wanted scripting for years, and seem no closer to getting it than they were a decade ago.

Verdict: OpenOffice.org. This is where FrameMaker’s age and lack of recent development costs.

Conclusion

I began comparing FrameMaker and Writer when a regular on the OpenOffice.org User’s list asked what it would take to give Writer the power of FrameMaker. When I started, I mentally pictured a scale with Microsoft Word on one end and FrameMaker on another, with Writer in the middle, but closer to Microsoft Word.

As I proceeded, I found Writer was a much stronger contender than I had expected. At the end of the comparison, I had to conclude that the two products compare quite closely, depending on what features are more important to a given user. FrameMaker’s superiority for sideheads, for instance, may sway some users, or Writer’s in indexes and tables of contents. Nor are the advantages listed here equally decisive; Writer’s victory in styles, for example, is narrower than FrameMaker’s in cross-references and sideheads.

Yet challenging the exact decisions misses the point. What matters is not how the comparisons are weighted, but that they can be reasonably made at all. Users of Writer may wish for some features of FrameMaker. They may need to adjust to a different logic and layout. However, so long as they take the time to learn Writer, they can be in little
doubt that they are using software that competes with FrameMaker on its own terms, and wins as often it loses. Even ignoring the cost and philosophical differences, OpenOffice.org is clearly an acceptable alternative to FrameMaker.

Note: This article was originally published on Newsforge. It appears here, slightly modified.

 

Bruce Byfield is a freelance journalist, product manager, and technical writer. A recovering academic, he is the writer of the standard reference on the American fantasist Fritz Leiber and a widely published poet. His other obsessions include raising Nanday conures; running long, painful distances; listening to punk-folk music; and indulging a four to 10 book a week reading habit.

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