Calligra was formally announced as KDE's successor to the KOffice office suite in December of 2010. Now, just under 18 months later, the project has labeled its first stable release version 2.4, signifying continuity with the old version numbering scheme that terminated with 2.3. The code is substantially different, however — there are brand new applications and major components from earlier generations were rewritten. On top of that, the suite is available in special builds for two portable platforms.
What's in the box
Calligra is officially branded an "application suite" — not an
"office suite." It is a fair distinction to insist upon, as Calligra
combines the traditional office suite programs (word processor,
spreadsheet, and presentation builder) with creative graphics programs
(both raster and vector), and a growing collection of harder-to-categorize
tools (such as a project planning application and a note-taker). As a
refresher, the bulk of the code that formed the initial Calligra suite came
from KOffice. There was an unfortunate split between the maintainers of several key
applications and the chief maintainer of the KWord component (who also
happened to maintain the KOffice shared library).
When it became clear that the differences were taking KWord in a
different direction than the rest of the suite, the others decided to head
off on their own. The KDE project voted to bless Calligra as the way
forward, and the new name dropped the "Office" moniker entirely to open the
door for non-productivity-tool projects to join in the effort. The core
"office" applications were renamed: Calligra Words, Calligra Sheets, and
As you might expect in light of the philosophical differences with KWord, the Calligra Words application has been rewritten substantially. The release notes highlight a completely new text layout engine, but also emphasize that the interface is designed to be a smooth continuation of the old KWord experience. Nevertheless, Calligra Words is not quite as mature as the Calligra Sheets and Calligra Stage components (though it is perfectly acceptable for the vast majority of office document projects). All three applications use the ODF format common to LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice, although Calligra does not implement as much of the specification as either of the older projects.
Joining the big three in the "office" category is the GUI database front-end Kexi. I must confess that I have never quite been the target user for a GUI database application, but Kexi is a seasoned player in this field. Two new applications debut in the 2.4 office collection: Calligra Flow, a diagramming and flowcharting tool, and Braindump, a "note taking" application. The "graphics" category includes two established applications: the painting and raster-editing tool Krita, and the vector editor Karbon. The sole entry in the "management" category is another newcomer, Calligra Plan, a project management (i.e., Gantt charting and analysis) tool.
By any account, this adds up to a hefty application payload. The entire menagerie is available for download in a single tarball, and there are binary packages for most Linux distributions and for Windows. The project also solicits help from volunteers interested in tackling a Mac OS X build, which is a tantalizing prospect, but not one available at the moment.
The new and improved
The new text layout engine of Calligra Words gives you access to some additional document structures, such as footnotes, endnotes, tables-of-contents, and large tables that span multiple pages. The Words component is a bit different than other word processors in that it natively supports text frames — blocks that contain text, but which you can rearrange on the page just like you would an embedded image or another discrete component. This is nice if you are used to the desktop-publishing (DTP) approach (as in Scribus), because it is much easier to construct a document with multiple regions (such as columns, photo captions, or a masthead). On the other hand, a lot of people find DTP confusing for precisely this reason. Calligra Words splits the difference; like a traditional word processor it starts you off with one text frame covering the page in a new document — but unlike a word processor, the frame is not permanently attached to the page where it is.
Words and the other office components take a different approach to the user interface than other office suites. They move most of the buttons and features out of the top menu bar and place them in detachable "docks" (think floating palettes) that you can rearrange and stick together at will. I am not convinced that this results in a simpler UI as the release notes advertise — you have the same number of buttons, plus tabs to sort them, they can just be attached to the side of the document pane rather than the top. Here again, I am curious to see what the overall reaction is from users — GIMP receives constant criticism for its use of floating tool docks, after all, and the majority of modern photo editors resort to a scrolling ribbon-of-tabs-on-one-side, which quickly becomes unwieldy to search through for a particular button. But it is more friendly to the 16x10 widescreen monitor format, where horizontal space often goes to waste on portrait-orientation documents.
Among the graphics applications, Krita is the more mature. We covered the improvements to Krita 2.4 in 2011;
the painting program adds several new brush engines in this release, plus a
"multi-hand tool" that duplicates brush strokes, improvements to image
blending modes, and a preset editor that allows you to store custom brush
and tool configurations. Karbon has some catching up to do before it
equals Inkscape as a vector editor — the core functionality is all
there, including drawing tools, text, path, and Boolean operations. What
it lacks is Inkscape's smorgasbord of fine-adjustment tools (such as
alignment options and cloning tools); it is the details that separate a
"professional" illustration tool from an amateur one, and you quickly get
used to having them. So too with extensions; I feel like Karbon is heading
in a good direction — it just needs time to flesh out the nooks and
Braindump is the most unusual of the new applications. It is a
mind-mapper at heart, a blend between the diagram-generating functions of
Flow and a standard note-taking application. What that means is that you
can create simple text notes, and visually link them to other notes —
or to images, charts, or other objects — on a whiteboard. I cannot
envision Braindump being a frequently-used tool, at least at the moment,
largely because it remains single-user. Certainly getting "the
content of your brain" (as creator Cyrille Berger put it) out into a
file is helpful when trying to get organized, but it seems far more useful
when applied to a group.
Calligra Flow is a diagram creator, which makes it a bit like a stripped-down vector editor — the principle operations are placing and connecting pre-defined markers and shapes. I have run into a few incidents (such as architecture diagrams) when a good diagram editor is more useful than a free-form vector editor, so I understand the value of the tool. Flow offers an impressive library of markers and connectors; you are essentially in point-and-click territory. You have only one export option, however — an Open Document drawing (.odg). Perhaps future releases will permit SVG, HTML, or even raster output too. Until then, you can always open the drawing in another application and convert it.
Calligra Plan seems like a better fit for the "office" category (I'm not clear why it is relegated to a category all of its own). It offers a straightforward introduction to project-planning functions, including scheduling, budgeting, and resource management, and various views to explore the current status of your projects. These are questions many of us assume to be the exclusive domain of pointy-haired bosses, but to be honest most collaborative projects (including software projects) could benefit from such an application, and there is scarcely any movement on this front from other desktop or office projects. Calligra Plan could develop into a key feature in future releases.
Finally, this release includes two Calligra variants designed for use on non-desktop systems. The first is Calligra Mobile, a stripped-down suite originally designed for Nokia's N900 phone. The mobile edition includes touch-friendly editors for word processor documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Although intended for a very small form-factor, it runs on desktop systems, too. There are fewer editing operations implemented, but Calligra Mobile is quite handy for viewing documents on the road (or for making presentations without a laptop). The second new implementation is Calligra Active, an interface built with QML and targeting touch-screen devices built on top of KDE's Plasma Active platform. In this release, Calligra Active only functions as a document viewer.
All things considered, Calligra 2.4 is an impressive debut. Part of the credit certainly belongs to the teams that have managed their application projects for years prior to the KOffice/Calligra divide, but a lot of effort has obviously gone into standardizing and packaging the applications. Despite their different maturity levels and histories, they do feel remarkably unified. I don't know that the uniformity will help a Calligra Words user dive right in with Krita and produce museum-quality work, but knowing what to expect with UI features like templates and dockable palettes certainly helps.
There are still areas in need of improvement. For example, I am not clear why some of the applications officially have "Calligra" prepended to their names, but others do not — there is not, for instance, a clear divide on that point between the old and new or the office and non-office components. More importantly, Calligra Words has a way to go before it can challenge LibreOffice Writer as an ODF word processor. Perhaps the best thing about Calligra 2.4, though, is that it broadens the definition of an "application suite" — the division between creative and "office" applications (to take one example) is something we inherited from proprietary software companies that chose to invest in one or the other, but it is artificial. Free software can do better, and Calligra proves that integrating a more holistic set of programs can still produce a quality suite of tools.
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