LibreOffice’s interface gets a long overdue makeover

From the department of long overdue, the Document Foundation announced its flagship program was going to be getting a much-needed interface overhaul in the upcoming 5.3 release.

Finally.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the tried and true menu-bar system; but when the desktop interfaces and application themes have made significant advances since the 90s, it only makes sense that the method by which we interact with our applications would also change. So this should be a welcome shift to anyone who’d prefer their application menu systems better suit their desktop UI.

Before you toss your arms up in the air and proclaim the LibreOffice developers are doing the same thing to users of MS Office (when they introduced the “Ribbon Interface”), fear not. Instead of forcing a new UI onto its users, there will be a choice. In fact, there’ll be four choices:

  • Default – The standard UI that you’ve been using for years
  • Sidebar – A single toolbar with a more in-depth sidebar
  • Single Toolbar – A single, minimalist toolbar
  • Notebookbar – A tab-based toolbar

It is the Notebookbar (Figure A) that should pique the interest of most users. Why? This is the LibreOffice developers take on the MS Office Ribbon Interface. With this interface, you have eight tabs:

  • Application – This tab doesn’t have a name, but it offers you access to things like View, Options, Print, Menubar, etc.
  • File – Actions that can be taken on a file (such as Open, Save, Save As, etc.)
  • Home – This is a stripped down version of the standard toolbar found in LibreOffice
  • Insert – A section dedicated to inserting various objects
  • Page layout – Actions for formatting your page
  • References – TOC, Indexes, footnotes, bibliography database, etc.
  • Review – Editorial functions, such as Spelling, Track Changes, Comments, etc.
  • View – Control the view of your document (Normal View, Web View, Print Preview, Zoom, etc.)

Figure A

Figure AFigure A

I installed a daily version of LibreOffice (to test out the new interface) and was really quite surprised at how much I liked the new interface. It isn’t perfect. As of the Beta 2 release there are still issues with icons (Figure B); but what I found goes well beyond the look of the Notebookbar layout.

Figure B

Figure BFigure B

A drastic improvement in efficiency

One of the most important criteria by which I judge an interface is efficiency. This particular category isn’t driven solely by simplicity, but by how the overall design makes my processes more expedient. One issue I’ve always found with LibreOffice is that adding anything to the toolbar creates a chaotic nightmare. Having all the tools I tend to use in the toolbar means I then either have to constantly remember the location of each button, or I have to scan through the wall of icons and labels. That is not efficient. To remedy that, I strip down the toolbar to the essentials and then navigate my way through the menu system when I need something I’ve removed. Still not terribly efficient.

As a sidenote: Ubuntu Unity’s Heads Up Display (HUD) did an amazing job of solving this problem. Click on the Alt button and then type what you want to do. It was one of the single most clean and efficient menu systems ever created. Unfortunately, users are glacially slow to change and few adopted the HUD. And since I migrated away from Ubuntu (to Elementary OS), the HUD was no longer an option. And so, the new LibreOffice interface is a boon.

How do you test it?

If you want to test this new interface, but don’t want to use 5.3 as your daily driver (it should be released some time this month), let me walk you through the process of installing the Beta 2 and run it alongside your current LibreOffice release. I will demonstrate on Elementary OS Loki.

The first thing you must do is download the beta release of 5.3 (save it in ~/Downloads). Once you have that downloaded, follow these steps:

  1. Open a terminal window
  2. Change into the ~/Downloads directory with the command cd ~/Downloads
  3. Unpack the downloaded LibreOffice Beta 2 file with the command tar xvzf libreoffice-XXX.tar.gz (Where XXX is the release number)
  4. Change into the newly created directory with the command cd LibreOfficeDEV_XXX (Where XXX is the release number)
  5. Change into the DEBS folder with the command cd DEBS
  6. Create a new folder with the command mkdir install
  7. Change into the newly created folder with the command cd install
  8. Issue this exact command: for i in ../*.deb; do dpkg-deb -x $i . ; done

When the command completes, there will be a number of new folders and files. Issue the command cd opt/LibreOfficeDev_XXX/program/ (where XXX is the release number) and then issue any of the following commands

  • ./soffice – to start the main application
  • ./swriter – to start the word processor
  • ./scalc – to start the database application
  • ./sbase – to start the database application
  • ./smath – to start the formula application

You’re not done. Out of the box, the new toolbar feature isn’t enabled. To take care of this, click Tools | Options. Under LibreOfficeDev click on Advanced and then click the check box associated with Enable experimental features. Click OK and then restart LibreOffice. Go to View | Toolbar Layout and select which toolbar you want to use. That’s it, you can now test out the Notebookbar toolbar layout coming in the official 5.3 release.

Worth the wait

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this UI update for some time now and was quite pleased that it offers more than just a visually pleasing upgrade to a long-in-the-tooth interface. The Notebookbar gives LibreOffice a significant boost in productivity. Give this new UI a go and see if you find yourself working more efficiently.

French email law requiring employees to disconnect after work goes into effect

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The new year brought a new French law into effect, allowing employees to ignore work emails after hours.

The law, dubbed the “right to disconnect,” was introduced in May 2016, and was enacted on Sunday. Companies of more than 50 employees now must set up hours when workers are not supposed to send or respond to emails, normally during evenings and weekends.

It follows France’s move to make all work weeks 35 hours, put in place in 2000 to encourage companies to hire more people. However, many industries are granted exemptions.

“On the one hand, change is hard, but on the other hand, for almost every other century, we didn’t do this,” said Mary LoVerde, a work-life balance expert. “We still made a lot of progress. I’m thrilled with this law because of all of the benefits that there will be for the employees and the businesses. We now know that burning people out has detriments that live on for both businesses and people.”

The law speaks to the challenges technology poses for workers, said JP Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst with Forrester. “Always-connected, anytime access has severely eroded work-life balance for many classes of workers,” Gownder said. “But the law itself might have unintended consequences, like larger companies locating jobs outside France, or making workers choose between the law and the quality of their work. It remains to be seen how it will play out.”

SEE: Does a 30-hour work week make sense for your business? Lessons from Amazon

Another question remains: How will this law impact IT professionals, who often work on-call after hours to address emergencies? LoVerde said companies will figure it out, and possibly have some employees work evenings and disconnect during the day.

A recent report from the London-based Future Work Centre called email a “double-edged sword” in terms of workplace productivity, in that it allows employees to communicate easily, but is also a source of stress and distraction. The researchers found that employees who leave their email on all day were much more likely to report feeling pressured, and that checking email early in the morning or late at night was associated with higher levels of pressure.

The negative impacts of poor work life-balance are well-documented: Overwork and the resulting stress can cause numerous health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heaving drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. These conditions not only hurt the employee, but also the company, in terms of turnover and rising health insurance costs.

In tech, particularly in the startup arena, there can be intense pressure to produce, Cali Williams Yost, a flexible workplace strategist and author, told TechRepublic last year. “If left unchecked, that can turn into a 24/7 reality,” she said. “But there is a growing recognition that perhaps that isn’t ultimately the best approach, and that you can still be productive without driving your people into the ground.”

What’s your opinion?

What do you think of the new French law? Do you think it could work for tech firms in other nations? Sound off in the comments.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. On January 1, a new law went into effect in France that requires companies with more than 50 employees to limit the hours workers spend answering emails after work.
  2. The law follows France’s 35 hour workweek law, which passed in 2000, and aims to improve workers’ work-life balance.
  3. It remains to be seen how the new law will impact worker productivity, especially in tech.

Intel alternative Talos Secure Workstation brings POWER8 to the desktop

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In the wake of the success of Raspberry Pi—which is itself spurring interest in Linux—the market for (partially) open single board computers has expanded greatly, with numerous competitors appearing on the market. More “complete” packages, such as the Librem 15 notebook computer and the EOMA68 modular computing project, have gained popularity and secured funding for production through the crowdsourcing website Crowd Supply, a platform which focuses on hardware development projects, and has a very hands-on staff who assist in navigating the logistics of manufacturing and distribution.

That said, these projects are a far cry from performance computing—while suitable for hardware projects or basic desktop computing, these devices are unlikely to win any performance benchmarks. For people needing large amounts of computing power, the Talos Secure Workstation hopes to be the answer to this gap in the market. By using IBM’s POWER8 processors, Talos effectively allows for server-class hardware to be shoved into an ATX form factor.

SEE: IBM launches new Linux, Power8, OpenPower systems(ZDNet)

While this is not the first time server-class POWER processors have been used on the desktop, the last commercially available product is the decade-old IBM IntelliStation POWER 285, which used POWER5+. This line was discontinued by IBM in January 2009 amidst a larger move out of hardware (selling assets to Lenovo), and in the middle of budget cuts that surrounded the economic turmoil of the time.

A Second Chance

Unlike other crowdsourced projects, the company behind this project, Raptor Engineering, has been in business since 2009. This is not their first go at trying to crowdsource the funds to produce the Talos Secure Workstation. Last February, their initial campaign was self-hosted, and required 2,000 backers to finance the production run.

This time around, working with Crowd Supply, the minimum number of backers needed is 900. TechRepublic’s previous coverage of Talos also detailed the creation of the OpenPOWER Foundation, which was created by IBM to allow third parties to create POWER-compatible hardware. The design of Talos was meant to avoid closed firmware blobs, and Talos is more secure than comparable Intel products due to the lack of Intel’s Active Management Technology (AMT) service.

The mainboard and related accessories are offered for $3700 USD. Processors, sold separately, range from $1135 for an 8-core, 3.026 GHz processor, to $3350 for a 12-core 3.226 GHz processor. The “Complete” bundle, with the fastest processor, maximum RAM, a case, two 4TB enterprise SAS disks, an LSI SAS controller, and an AMD FirePro W9100 is $17,600, though this can be exchanged for an NVIDIA Quadro K6000 for an extra $1500.

What Talos can do

The working design of the Talos Secure Workstation includes support for one POWER8 SCM (single chip module), in 8, 10, or 12 core processors at 190W TDP, or 8 or 10 core processors in 130 TDP versions, for a maximum of 96 logical cores on the highest-end available CPU. The board also includes 8 DDR3 slots with ECC, powered by two memory controllers for a maximum 256 GB RAM.

For PCI Express, there are two x16 CAPI-capable slots (configured as 8 shared lanes), four x8 slots, one x1 mPCIe slot, and a single legacy PCI slot. Other ports include ten SATA (6 Gbps, two of which are eSATA), one HDMI port, eight USB 3.0 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, two external and two internal RS232 ports, and one 40-pin GPIO header.

SEE: Power checklist: Vetting employees for security sensitive operations (Tech Pro Research)

Speaking in terms of power (excuse the pun), the POWER8 processors are very competitive with Intel’s Xeon series of server processors. The benchmarks posted on Raptor Engineering’s website demonstrate this to an extent. For example, POWER8 is about 25% faster at LZ4 compression of a random 128 MB file than is an Intel Xeon E3-1270, though the Xeon is slightly faster in a real-world test of compressing Mozilla. Talos is capable of running various popular Linux distributions, even in Little Endian mode (a historic pain point for older versions of the POWER ISA).

The crowdfunding campaign ends on January 14, 2017 at 11:59 PM UTC.

Lenovo brings AR to business users with AI-powered smart glasses at CES 2017

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Lenovo’s first-ever smart glasses combine augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) to help business users improve their workflow, the company announced Tuesday at CES 2017.

The Lenovo New Glass C200 operates through a user’s smartphone. It includes a lightweight Glass Unit, which runs on Linux and uses only one eye, “enhancing a user’s perception of ‘mixed reality’ while viewing the AR world simultaneous to the real world,” according to a press release. It also includes a Pocket Unit, which a user plugs into their phone and connects to via a New Glass app. This allows the device to run with enhanced CPU performance and an LTE connection, the company stated.

The unit gathers information in a user’s field of vision, and can “provide step-by-step instructions for repair, identify disabled equipment and trouble shoot issues with a remote colleague while your hands are free,” the press release said, making it a useful tool for the enterprise.

The smart glasses use AI recognition software called Lenovo NBD Martin to identify images and label them in real time. NBD Martin collects and analyzes data from the smart glass camera, sensors, and user history, and combines this information with the user’s voice commands, gestures, and selections to act as an AI assistant that can provide information and tools for a job, the company stated.

SEE: CIO Jury: 83% of CIOs allow wearables at work

Lenovo also announced the software platform Lenovo NBD Titan, which allows users to quickly create and edit AR content, even as novice developers. This platform could be useful in the home improvement and interior design field, for example, as it offers an AR space to experiment with different architecture and design elements, the press release stated.

Some 39% of companies are already using AR, according to a 2016 Tech Pro Research report. And, 67% of companies not already using AR said they were considering it for their organization.

The New Glass C200 will compete for business users with the Vuzix M300, the ODG R-7 Smart Glasses, and the Epson MOVERIO. Apple is also reportedly considering a push into smart glasses. However, while pricing information is not yet available, it’s possible that the New Glass C200 may be a more cost-effective option since it operates via a smartphone.

Customized versions of New Glass C200 are currently available here. The company expects mass production to start in June 2017.

Along with the smart glasses, Lenovo announced the Lenovo Smart Assistant, a digital personal assistant that leverages Amazon Alexa’s cloud-based voice services. “Built in collaboration with Amazon, the elegantly designed Lenovo Smart Assistant recognizes users’ voice commands to conduct web searches, play music, create lists, calendar reminders and much more,” according to a press release. The assistant is designed to run Lenovo smart home devices, as well as other third-party products.

The company also unveiled Lenovo Smart Storage, a digital storage solution with 6TB1 capacity, dual-band wireless access, and multi-device auto-sync capabilities, according to a press release. It also features integrated facial recognition software for organizing stored photos.

Additionally, Lenovo showcased new hardware for the enterprise, including the next generation of ThinkPad X1 PCs, and a new Miix 720 Windows tablet.

“Our approach to innovation is to ensure we’re constantly evolving and understanding how technology is infused within every individual, business and home,” said Gianfranco Lanci, president and chief operating officer of Lenovo, in a press release. “We’re dedicated to understanding our customers and will never stop creating better experiences, whether PCs for work, play or gaming, next generation AR/VR innovation or within the smarter home.”

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

1. On Tuesday at CES 2017, Lenovo announced the launch of its first smart glasses, New Glass C200, which combine AR and AI with the goal of helping business users.

2. The company also unveiled a new digital assistant built with Amazon Alexa, and smart storage options.

3. Lenovo also unveiled new PCs and tablets for enterprise users.

5 big data trends that will shape AI in 2017

While “big data” can be a misunderstood buzzword in tech, there’s no denying that the recent AI and machine learning push is dependent on the labeling and synthesis of huge amounts of training data. A new trend report by advisory firm Ovum predicts that the big data market—currently at $1.7 billion—will swell to $9.4 billion by 2020.

So what do data insiders see happening in the coming year? TechRepublic spoke to several leaders in this field to find out.

Here are five big data trends to watch in 2017, from the experts.

1. AI and machine learning will increase the need for for big data analytics

There’s no question that the AI boom depends on data labeling and analysis. “Machine learning has really come along,” said Carla Gentry, a data scientist in Louisville, KY. “2017 will be the year we see more expertise, but still it will struggle, with understanding, proper usage and talent.”

“IoT on the other hand, will surge with toys, car accessories, home and security uses but it will also set up nasty hackers with lots more access to our private lives,” Gentry said.

Monte Zweben, co-founder and CEO of Splice Machine, has a background in AI. “AI applications powered by machine learning depend on data to develop more predictive models,” said Zweben. “The more data, and, even more importantly, more data that represents the concepts you need to learn, makes AI applications better.

For example, said Zweben, “the more electronic medical records a system sees that reflect dangerous sepsis events in hospitals, the better a system can predict them before they happen.”

Big data, according to Tony Baer, principal analyst for information management at Ovum, “has emerged from its infancy to transition from buzzword to urgency for enterprises across all major sectors.”

“The growing pains are being abetted by machine learning, which will lower barriers to adoption of big data-enabled analytics and solutions,” said Baer, “and the growing dominance of the cloud, which will ease deployment hurdles.”

SEE: 10 big data insiders to follow on Twitter (TechRepublic)

2. Self-service big data tools hitting the web

With advances in data processing and cloud applications, there is a plethora of free data platforms online that make organizing and synthesizing data easy—even for beginners.

“Every platform is becoming cloud-available,” said Zweben. “Even big data platforms like Splice Machine are available now as a self-service platform. You specify how much storage and compute you need and databases appear in the cloud for both your apps and data warehouses to use in minutes. There are no wires, racks, networks, or servers to configure,” he said.

There are also a number of machine learning platforms, from tech giants like Baidu, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google, and others. Here’s more on how to choose a good data platform.

Michael Cavaretta, director of analytics infrastructure at Ford Motor Company, said he also sees this as a trend that will continue in 2017.

“Cloud implementations of big data are increasing in popularity as it drives down the entry cost for these technologies,” Cavaretta said. “For many, building a big data stack just isn’t cost effective—particularly for startups—and works best when the majority of the data can be hosted on a single instance.”

3. Analytics are still struggling to keep up

But even with all the great tools and data warehouses, analytics remain complicated. “Even with giant data warehouses now available on Big Data like Hadoop and Spark, companies still struggle to transfer data from operational systems to analytical systems,” said Zweben. “that gap and enable the seamless combination of both workloads.”

“Analytics will always struggle to keep up,” said Cavaretta. “As more data and better algorithms become available, more automation is possible along with better predictions. As the methods disseminate, they become the cost of doing business, driving more analytic innovation.”

SEE: Job description: Big data modeler (Tech Pro Research)

4. Data cleansing becoming an industry

In order to get training data into machine learning systems, it must first be cleansed, which means making sure that the information in a database has been checked for errors in format, duplications, etcetera. “Machine learning systems are only as good as the data they train on,” said Zweben, “and the secret is transforming raw operational data into learnable features.” The fact that someone visited an online shoe retailer, for instance, “is useful,” he said. “But knowing they went there today is invaluable.”

5. Democratization of data

Jim Adler, head of data at the Toyota Research Institute, has previously talked to TechRepublic about how data doesn’t live in lakes. Rather, “it lives in silos where accountability, focus, and mission are clear,” said Adler. “Server-less, micro-service architectures are making it increasingly easy for these silo-owners to access, analyze, and manage their data without racking servers, configuring virtual machines, or even paying by the hour. Going serverless allows data owners to focus on their data application and pay just for what they use—by the minute.”