Managing empty fields: the status quo
When doing mail merge, it’s often (even usually) desirable that if a database field is empty for a recipient, then the corresponding line be hidden in the generated document. LibreOffice has always allowed doing this using special Hidden paragraph fields – which is very flexible, though not too user-friendly, because of its complexity in creation and support. E.g., one needs to remember to move the field along with the database field when one edits the document; or change the field’s conditions when renaming database fields or combining fields in a single paragraph.
There are situations when using Hidden paragraph fields is even impossible. Since the condition in the said field depends on a registered database name, it cannot be used when there’s no registered database (which happens when one wants to connect to data sources dynamically, when one is actually performing the merge).
Meet the convenience
Today we have released the new Collabora Office 5.3-49, which includes the improvement that we at Collabora Productivity have implemented: now database fields also hide paragraphs themselves when the field value is empty: now there’s no need to use separate fields for that. This allows for easier creation and management of the auto-hiding empty database values.
With the change, we are also more interoperable with other office suites that behave that way, including Microsoft Office.
This feature is controlled by a new compatibility option, which is enabled by default in all new documents. If one wants to return to old behaviour, however, one can easily do that using Writer’s compatibility options.
As usual, the improvement is also available in the next major release of LibreOffice, which is to be released in August.
What we had achieved previously
After we at Collabora Productivity had improved existing LDAP configuration backend to be relatively easily configurable for Windows clients in ActiveDirectory-based domain environment, we started to prepare a further improvement in this area, which purpose was to overcome the problems of LDAP-based backend. The said problems are caused by the fact that LDAP backend needs to have proper credentials for server connection explicitly configured, which leads to requirement to have a dedicated restricted service account which would have a fake password (which would be written in clear text on each configured workstation), and which only purpose is connecting to LDAP server and retrieving user information. The said approach hardly fits into Active Directory’s concept with single sign-on (SSO) in its heart. Of course, the preferable solution would be to have a configuration backend that could get user data from AD using current user’s credentials, without the need to have a service account for that.
Collabora makes the next step
In the past weeks, we have merged a brand new backend plugin (WinUserInfoBe), which uses the improvements in core made when working on LDAP backend, and which implements the said concept. It is, naturally, even easier to configure than LDAP backend (the only thing required is to set a user data field to be taken using the said plugin); neither server connection configuration, nor further LO data field to LDAP object property mapping is needed. And of course, we have made the necessary changes to our ADMX template to make this configurable using convenient GPO editor interface.
Upgrade and benefit
This change is immediately available in the released Collabora Office 5.3-49 for our customers – why not upgrade now and have a play? – and it will also be in the next major release of LibreOffice 6.1 due to be released in August 2018.
Introducing the problem
User data in LibreOffice (Options→LibreOffice→User Data) is used for a number of purposes; among them are setting authors of documents, comments and modifications (when in Change Tracking mode); and saving cursor position in documents (so that the authors would jump right to the place they worked at last time, while other readers would see the document from the beginning).
When the data is missing, collaborative work may suffer from e.g. anonymous changes or comments appearing in documents; that’s why it’s usually important for organizations to care that LibreOffice instances have this information filled in properly – and of course, the configuration should be centralized.
Pre-existing (awkward) solution
LibreOffice has always had ability to get user data using LDAP (a protocol to communicate with different directory services). Using that, it was already possible to setup LibreOffice to take user data (name, organization, address, etc.) from Active Directory (which is also accessible using LDAP) by doing some post-deployment steps: creating a custom .xcd file from a template (oo-ad-ldap.xcd.sample) shipped with LibreOffice, and deploying it to share\registry sub-folder of LibreOffice installation on client systems. However, this is not a “native” way to centrally configure Windows applications in an Active Directory domain; among other things, one needs to invent a mechanism to deploy the .xcd (e.g., using a .bat file at startup, or modifying MSIs used to install LibreOffice); debug it, and support (like when LibreOffice install path changes, as happened with LibreOffice 6.0, which now installs into LibreOffice – previously install path included major version number; and .bat script would need to account for that, and possibly also work in an environment where different LO versions exist on different systems).
A new shiny way to do this
Starting with Collabora Office 5.3-48, and coming with LibreOffice 6.1 in August, it is also possible to use a GPO Administrative Template that we at Collabora Productivity created for our partner Studio Storti, to setup this, which allows system administrators running Active Directory domains to perform the configuration conveniently using familiar tools and workflow. Please see the documentation file describing this in details, in the folder with the ADMX file.
Last week I had fixed a trivial bug (a leftover from a former change where a function’s return was changed, but one place of its usage managed to escape to be not converted to properly treat the changed return). It seems to simultaneously have fixed a number of other bugs (the discussion may be found in the bug tracker issue). The little (a few characters) bug turned out to create both performance issues, and clipping of characters, so it had big impact on LibreOffice on Windows (with DirectWrite, e.g. when OpenGL is used).
The problem became trivial both to find and fix, because of great bug report by Telesto, who not only filed the report, but also had provided every relevant piece of information, including terminal output accompanied the problem manifestation. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this: the effort of the bug reporter makes a difference. Without the effort, some problems remain very difficult for developers to be tracked down and get fixed.
I write this to praise Telesto‘s great job, and urge every reporter of a bug to follow this great lead.
The slides from my talk at the LibreOffice Conference in Rome (2017-10-13) (hybrid PDF; notes inside embedded ODP)
Windows still provides two sets of many of its Win32 API functions taking or returning strings: a legacy “Ansi” (functions named like fooA) and Unicode (named like fooW; available since Windows NT, and in Windows 95 with Layer for Unicode – and thus on any Windows OS supported by LibreOffice).
The “Ansi” functions take 8-bit strings in current codepage (single- or multibyte). The repertoire of characters representable in those strings is, naturally, limited to that codepage (that is either setup in system’s Language for non-Unicode programs, or explicitly set by running application). Unfortunately, unlike in other contemporary OSes, Windows doesn’t allow setting its locale to use UTF-8. If a string arrives to such a function that contains characters outside of that set, the string content will be altered, and functions’ behaviour might change unexpectedly.
“W” versions of those functions take UCS-2 strings, that are able to represent most of Unicode range (I am unsure if those strings are actually UTF-16, and so are able to represent the full Unicode repertoire, but anyway, even UCS-2 is much wider than most of single- or multi-byte codepages).
In last two weeks, we have replaced many places (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D) in LibreOffice codebase where legacy “A”-functions were still used, with explicit calls of their “W”-counterparts, removing redundant conversions of strings from LibreOffice internal UTF-16 string representation to 8-bit strings and back. One of most significant effects might be on file-management functions, where such conversions could alter paths/names containing Unicode characters not representable in currently selected 8-bit codepage, and lead to failed file operations. One example of such problems is tdf#103525.
The changes are included into master towards 6.0.