Originally Published: Tuesday, 26 September 2000 Author: Mark Stone
Published to: daily_feature/Linux.com Feature Story Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Powerpoint Must Die

I first started using Linux for the right reasons: I was interested in learning about a server-class operating system. I wanted to understand networking, web-serving, and CGI programming. With nothing at my disposal but a 486 with 8 megs of RAM (this was a powerful PC relative to the market at that time), Linux was the obvious choice.

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Linux, however, has also been my day-to-day operating system more or less continuously since then. And no one would mistake Linux circa 1995 for an ideal desktop operating system. I needed desktop applications: more specifically, a GUI word processor and a spreadsheet.

For a spreadsheet I settled on sc; a cute little cursor-based program for which I still have great fondness and which I still occasionally use. Word processing was a tougher challenge, but by 1996 I had settled on this Rube Goldberg arrangement: running Executor, a MacOS emulator for Linux which allowed me to run Microsoft Word 5.1 for the Mac.

The problem, I quickly discovered, was that programmers tended to program what they themselves needed. This is really two problems. First, there are whole classes of applications that programmers ignore because they don't use them. Office's presentation program, Powerpoint, comes at the head of this list.

Second, programmers tend to code programs only well enough to be able to use them themselves. They haven't figured out yet that 'it works for me' is not an axiom of usability.

As Linux has become mainstream, the situation has certainly improved. Commercial software companies have gotten involved by doing what they do best: coercing programmers to code, debug, and make usable programs that the programmers themselves don't really care about. So we now have Applixware, Star Office, and Word Perfect. We have passable word processing and spreadsheet programs under Linux.

The Achilles' heel of desktop Linux, however, is the presentation program. We have nothing that can even remotely compete with Microsoft Powerpoint. For years I could ignore this sad fact, but as an official part of the management structure, I can no longer avoid the truth: I have to make presentations, and all available software under Linux sucks.

I have tried KPresenter, Applixware, Star Office, Magicpoint, Ultrapoint, and several others even less memorable. Many of these programs have elegant pieces of code in them. Ultrapoint, for example, does some very fancy work with XML. Unfortunately, they all suffer from a common problem: none of them were designed by people who were going to have to use them extensively.

Why does this matter? It matters because all of these programs attack the wrong end of the problem. Developing a delivery mechanism that enables one to view and navigate a slide presentation is trivial; I can do it in about 5 lines of Javascript and about 10 lines of HTML.

The hard part is creating a graphics editor for creating slides that someone who knows absolutely nothing about graphics, and wants to continue knowing absolutely nothing about graphics can use. The available presentation software under Linux is either so hideously complex you might as well learn to use the Gimp (Magicpoint fits in this category) or an afterthought with about as much use as XPaint (StarOffice fits in this category).

A useful presentation program must make it possible for someone who knows nothing about graphic design or graphics editors to generate serviceable graphics. Let me say that again: someone who knows nothing about graphics must be able to intuitively generate serviceable graphics. In case anyone has any doubt on this score, let me just emphasize: to pointy-haired managers, the Gimp is not intuitive. So sorry, guys, but 'just use the Gimp' is not an option.

In short: all the existing tools suck, and none of them conceive their design from a typical user's point of view. They are tools only a programmer could love. Guess what? Programmers don't do presentations. Pointy-haired managers do.

Now, I've had this conversation with a number of my programmer friends, and while none of them directly disagrees with me, they all have a powerful retort: this is Open Source; don't complain about the lack of available tools. If you need a tool, go make one or improve on an existing one. And you know what? They are absolutely right. So, out of complete and utter frustration I've started an open source project. Never mind that my most sophisticated programming project involved a PDP/1170, or that the last formal language I was schooled in was Pascal. What's been missing from all these projects so far has been an end user's perspective; I can certainly bring that.

I'm forced to live in the world of pointy-haired managers who use and expect Powerpoint presentations. I'm highly Windows-averse, don't even own a copy of Office, but I also, like most managers, have no skill with graphics. The Gimp will never be my answer to life's problems.

So, out of desperation I've decided to quit complaining and try to make something better. Or coerce, cajole, or dupe others into making something better for me.

If you want to help out, laugh at my meager coding abilities, or just gape at the spectacle of a non-programmer trying to guide programmers in an Open Source project, then check out http://present.sourceforge.net.

Mark Stone is Director of Developer Services for OSDN. Since he has "Director" in his title, he has to do presentations; it's the law, you know.

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