One of the biggest barriers to the acceptance of Linux on the desktop is the perception of those outside the Linux community that Linux has no support for Office suites and applications. As we all know, this is far from the truth. We’ve seen StarOffice, Corel, Applixware and the up-and-coming KOffice, but how many of these have you used? The choices are so diverse that people just end up trying or buying one of them and sticking with it.
In this review, I’m going to try to cut through all the hype and mystery surrounding these applications so that you can see exactly what each of these tools offers, without having to go through all the trouble yourself. I’ve come from the pure Microsoft Office background myself so I know (at least to some extent) what newcomers to the Linux-as-a-desktop environment will be looking for.
This review includes some beta and pre-beta software, meaning that it crashes often. I’m keeping the state of each program in mind as I write this review so you can be sure it won’t take anything away from my review. Also note that I’ve put a quick overview of my installation experiences in this first piece to ensure you’ll know what to expect.
On that note… let the games begin!
KOffice is one of the new things that’s going to be coming along with KDE2. It’s not a clone of one of the office giants like StarOffice or Microsoft Office, but instead a full suite of tools for office productivity with a different set of features than others.
KOffice is such a huge suite that I couldn’t review every part of it in a single article. If I missed or skimmed over something you’re interested in, please send me some mail and I’ll try to add it to the piece as a footnote for future reference.
To fit my role as a possible end-user of the software, I decided to install this software in pre-built binary form. There are source packages available, but I wasn’t looking forward to spend hours compiling all of the required libraries and applications.
I grabbed the latest RPM build pointed to from the KOffice binaries homepage: http://koffice.kde.org. The one I took was the massive 29 MB RPM with everything in it. Once wget had finished, I just logged in as root and installed it using RPM. That was all it took to install. Wow.
Since I had downloaded the monolithic installation RPM, there were no library conflicts, no package installation order issues or anything else that might even consider giving me grief. Unless you have a good reason for it, I suggest you take this path as well.
From tinkering around with a few of the programs, I discovered that I had to start
kded – two programs used extensively by all KDE2-based programs. Once those two are going, everything seems to work like magic.
Okay, this review is for KOffice, but I’ll take a few moments and say some things about KDE2. This is a very slick-looking package. There are way more applications and utilities included in this bundle than with KDE1. A few of the new ones I noticed include:
Add to that a bunch of time-wasting games and some beautiful-looking widgets, and we have ourselves the next window manager I’m going to install (once it’s either beta or release quality, that is).
KOffice is composed of seven major tools, each with a specific purpose and each with the ability to be embedded in the other applications. These are:
KWord is KDE2’s answer to Microsoft Word. Don’t take that the wrong way, though. It’s not a clone of the infamous Word, but rather an amazing program that can act as either a frame-based document editor for desktop publishing (like FrameMaker), or a word-processer in the traditional sense (like Word or WordPerfect).
The first thing you’ll notice about KWord is how different it feels from a classic word-processor. It sure looks like one, but the layout features take a bit of time to get used to. The first mistake you’ll probably make is trying to figure out how to modify a frame you put down. Instead of right-clicking the frame to get its properties while you’re in a text-editing mode (sorry, I guess that’s a leftover Windows thing), you need to use the “select frame” tool first (it’s the second vertical toolbar from the left, the second button down). Once you have this tool selected, you can move and resize the frames to your heart’s content. Right-clicking the frame in this mode will give you that elusive popup menu. Don’t forget to go back to text mode after you’re finished though (the button right above it).
You might wonder why things are implemented this way – I assure you there is a good reason. Imagine how much time and frustration you’ll save yourself knowing that all of the frame objects on your page are essentially static while you’re editing text. One of my biggest beefs with the Office suite is the wonderful habit your images have of moving around the page and possibly moving a number of pages down the document if you aren’t careful. As well, if you go back to a program like Word, you’ll find yourself cursing every time you go to move a text box and start editing the text inside it instead or vice-versa. You don’t have to worry about hitting that magical, invisible grippy border that Microsoft expects you to use to move your objects around.
I don’t know if it’s possible to tie a frame to a particular piece of text, however. This could be useful to ensure your image always follows a description, for instance. There might be a way to do this in the current version, but it wasn’t obvious for me (believe me, I looked). It would be nice to be able to set some sort of reference marker, so the image would have position specified relative to the page (as it currently stands), or to the marker, so that moving the text around would move the frame as well.
To help to write documents with consistent layout, KOffice has a solid text style implementation. You can format your text in a number of different header styles and then generate a table of contents from those directly. The “Stylist” command allows you to go in and change these styles to your heart’s content. Unfortunately, it seems as if the only table you can generate is a table of contents, and that seems to be hardwired to generate it from the headings. Allowing arbitrary index generation to the release version would be a big benefit.
There are also a number of other great features in this program, like a spell checker, support for tables, generation of tables of contents and the ability to embed any KPart in a document (like a spreadsheet or chart, for instance).
Overall, I’d say this program is well designed and relatively stable, especially impressive given its current alpha status. It’s simple to use (after a half-hour of retraining yourself), intuitive, feels responsive and has most of the features that I’d need to write a great technical report. Of course, there are some issues with layout, but they’ve got enough time to work these out before the release. Best of all, it’s free (as in speech) and has a great team of developers behind it.
My final KWord tip: just be careful not to hit the close button if you’ve got unsaved work (you did save, didn’t you?). There’s no warning that you haven’t committed your changes to disk and no autosave. Uh oh!
Keep in mind that it’s still not even a beta yet and many if not most of these issues will be gone by release time.
As the KOffice team says:
“Note: This is not even alpha so it might compile and might work (normally it does), but we do not recommend writing your master thesis with KOffice yet!”
Applixware is a long-time member of the office suite community. The latest development release version of their software, 5.0 M1, has limited support for the GTK widget set.
At the time of writing, Applixware is currently being chastised for a violation of the LGPL. The application suite is statically linked to the GTK libraries. It seems as if someone from Applix may have noticed this, however, as any official downloads seem to have disappeared from their FTP site. There’s still a link off Freshmeat to an alternate download site that still has it, but I assume that it should only be a few days from the time of writing before it comes back up with a dynamically linked version.
At $99 for the 4.4.2 Deluxe Edition for Linux, it’s not a bad deal for a commercial office suite. The demo lasts for a couple of months, so you can take your time evaluating the suite before committing yourself to purchasing it.
At a whopping 80+ MB, the demo of Applixware might not be in everyone’s reach. If you’re on dialup, I recommend getting a friend with a Zip drive or CD burner to grab you a copy. Make sure you’ve got a couple hundred megabytes available on your HD as well. I thought Microsoft Office was big!
Installation of Applixware is just as simple as for KOffice. Applixware is commercial, closed-source software, so there are no source tarballs. You’ll need to grab the tarball and run the installation script as room. They’ve set it up to put all the RPMs in the right spots without any user intervention. If you’re planning on uninstalling it in the future, make sure you keep the removal script handy!
Everything should work right out of the box. As mentioned by one of the Freshmeat comments, it seems to have some trouble with pixmap themes. It doesn’t affect the operation of the program, so you don’t need to worry.
Applix Words starts up with a light-weight GUI. Even though they claim GTK compatibility, it looks like they just take the colors from the theme and apply it to their custom menus and toolbars. It still looks good, but reminds more of Netscape than a GTK program.
One of their big selling features are the import filters. I decided to try them out by importing my resume from Office 2000. It came out looking virtually identical to the Office version. There were a few minor layout issues, however. One of the header tables had changed size, forcing my telephone number to drop down a few lines and leftward across the page. This was fixed with a simple cut-and-paste. It also insisted on adding space between some bulleted items. Format/Paragraph Settings…, change the insert space before and after text and voila!
Now that I have a beautiful resume in Applixware, how do I get it to the masses? The File/Print… dialog in Applixware is simple and straightforward. It has support for both PostScript and PCL5 printers. In the version I have, there seems to be no way to print other than to a file, but I’m not complaining. It’s nice to see my resume in all its Postscript glory. Applix Words is WYSIWYG, too.
Creating original documents isn’t quite as straightforward. Coming from a Microsoft Word environment, I’m used to using styles extensively. Even though Word’s support tends to be buggy at best, it’s still convenient to have a common look-and-feel across a document, as many of you must realize. A blank Applix Words document doesn’t come with any of the nice styles, making it virtually useless for anything more than a shopping list. That’s okay – there’s an enormous selection of document templates, ranging from letters to reports to press releases. It takes a while sorting through all of the cryptic names, but you can usually find one to fit your purpose and tweak it until you like it. I must say it’s nice to have more than just a single style.
In addition to slick styles, Applix Words has support for cross-referencing and a table of contents. These are two features to look for if your job requires technical report writing. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any styles for figure and table captions, meaning you’ll have to add a couple yourself to create a list of either of these.
If you’re one of those people that enjoys using cheesy clip-art, Applixware is the right suite for you. There seems to be thousands of images from all sorts of characters. I still have nightmares about “face 04” in the People category. shudder
I have a few minor issues with the user interface. Every once in a while, the flicker of the document pane while using the menus is little annoying. As well, there’s a problem scrolling some documents where grey bars appear. That can get annoying at times if you’re trying to do a random seek on your document. Applixware is still beta, so hopefully these won’t be around in the final build.
Applix Words is neither free as in speech or in beer, but is worth the price if you’re looking to spend money on a solid-looking word processor. Add on to that the support for styles, cross-referencing, tables of contents, equations and other nifty features, and you’ve got yourself a great tool for developing technical documents under Linux. The import and export features ensure you’ll never feel left out of the Windows community.
I hate to say it, but most charts of this kind are biased towards one product or another. I’ve tried to make this chart unbiased to reflect the requirements of a technical writer, rather than showcase the features of any single product. Any word processor can create a simple document, but there are a number of features that make creation of a technical document much simpler. These are the features (in addition to the required features of the programs) that I’ve chosen to include here:
|Product||Dev. Status||Download Size||Cost||Stability||Look and feel|
|KWord||Alpha||29 MB||Free||"Quirky"||Excellent, Responsive|
|ApplixWords||Beta||80 MB||$99||Solid||Good, GUI tends to flicker|
|Product||Printing||Import Filters||Equations||Styles||Tables||TOCs / Indexes|
|ApplixWords||PostScript or PCL5||Extensive||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
The concept of “Linux on the desktop” is getting closer to reality on a weekly basis. From the strong showing of KOffice and ApplixWare, we can see that the world of word processing and other office work isn’t a dangerous task for Linux fans. The experience of creating documents under Linux is far from painful, especially with the fully featured office suites available.
KOffice is still a ways from being a complete, stable office suite, but is very feature-complete for being alpha status. The interface is busy, but not cluttered, and almost everything necessary for a good document is available. It’s fast, responsive and feels very lightweight. Keep your eye on this one – it’s going to be great. Oh yeah… it’s free too.
ApplixWare is a lot older, and being so gives it a huge headstart on KOffice in terms of features. It’s way bigger and feels a little overwhelming at times. They haven’t put work into making it look as pretty as it could, but it gets the job done, and does it well at that. Hopefully by the time it’s past beta, they’ll have done some work on the UI. At the given price ($99 for the previous version, hopefully the same for this one), it’s a pretty good deal.
Whichever package you choose, you can still rest assured that Linux is and will continue to be a productive desktop environment, rather than just a hacker toy it’s been seen as in the past.