Five Suites for Linux

Linux Magazine takes you on a tour of the currently available office suites for Linux.

Linux suites title colour

Office suites have become so central to the way people work and communicate that a number of people have proposed that Microsoft’s monopoly does not revolve around Windows, but rather around Microsoft Office.

So it will probably be a while before MS Office finds its way onto the Linux desktop. Oh well.

Open source application developers seem to have taken the same attitude toward Linux office suites as they did toward the kernel itself: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. Whenever Linux was missing some piece of functionality, someone stepped forward and wrote the software to add it. Office suites are proving to be no exception to that rule.

True, the current Linux office-suite offerings are not yet quite as polished, integrated, or feature-rich as those that exist in the Windows world. But hey, a year ago it would not have been possible to conduct a round-up of Linux office suites, and now it is. We looked at five products: Applix Applixware, Sun’s StarOffice, Corel’s WordPerfect, the GNOME office suite, Workshop, and KDE’s KOffice suite. Some of these are open source projects, and some are not, but all of them show tremendous promise.

All of these products are available via free download from the Internet. For many, the large download size (usually dozens of megs) might prove to be an incentive to invest in DSL. The lack of printed documentation can also be a deterrent to using a downloaded version. Applix, Corel, and Sun offer packages that include a CD-ROM, printed documentation, and often installation tech support. Sun sells a $10 CD-only version of StarOffice as well.

One interesting thing about these office suites is the way they bring the inherent power of the X Window System into focus. For example, some of them implement remote font servers to allow centralized workgroup collections of fonts. Some of them, like Corel’s WordPerfect, support multiple users. Each user’s workstation runs a client program that interfaces with the central WordPerfect X server, using the workstation essentially as a dumb terminal for mouse and keyboard input.

We found that the Linux-based solutions ranged from very complete to extremely marginal functionality. Odds are that your choice will come down to functionality needs and personal taste rather than cost, because even the most expensive Linux office suite is substantially less expensive than the $400 or so you’ll pay for MS Office.

Because Microsoft dominates the office-software space, interoperability is a key concern. Document exchange between MS Office and the various Linux office suites is possible, and some of these products interoperate quite smoothly with MS Office. Still, all of them have at least some weaknesses in this area.

If you’re looking to go feature-heavy and exchange a lot of files with Windows-based solutions, we recommend either Applixware or StarOffice. As a stand-alone word processor, WordPerfect is head and shoulders above the rest. Unfortunately, its limited support of spreadsheet and database tables can be problematic. But it is probably unfair to compare the functionality of a stand-alone word processor with an entire suite of office applications.

If you have no need to exchange documents with other office software packages, then KDE’s KOffice is a competent package. The minimal number of import and export filters make it unsuitable at this time for operation in a heterogeneous environment. Still, KOffice does hold a lot of promise as a sophisticated office environment.

Finally there is SourceGear’s AbiWord, which is a part of the GNOME office suite. At this time, it is still a work in progress and is worth exploring if your primary goal is to simply move beyond the functionality of a text editor.

So the bottom line is this: For those who haven’t built an entire workflow operation around the special features of Microsoft Office, Linux is a powerful alternative to the Windows environment.

Suites Applixware Box

Applix Applixware
Office Suite for Linux

$99; $189 for developer edition


PROS: Developer’s version available; full office suite

CONS:Some import limitations

Cool Product logo

Applixware version 4.4.2 provides a complete office- application environment with functionality ranging from word processing to e-mail. It is organized along conventional office-suite lines starting with Applix Words. Applix Spreadsheets and Applix Data provide spreadsheets with graphing and database support, respectively. Applix HTML Author provides a full-featured Web-site editor. Applix Graphics is an image editor that can be used for a variety of image tasks, such as creating Web images or preparing graphics for use in other Applix documents and presentations. Applix Presents is a very capable slide-show presentation tool. Rounding it all off is Applix Mail, a MIME-compliant POP3 mail client. The only office tool we found missing was a scheduling application.

Applixware has one of the best sets of import and export filters of all the products we tested, with very good support for Microsoft Office 97 and Microsoft Office 2000 documents. There are notable limitations, such as an inability to support MS Office text highlighting. Likewise, embedded objects that do not have a Linux equivalent, such as some ActiveX objects, will be lost when importing documents, but this is not a surprise and not really the role of a word processor to correct. Common styles, text, and formatting come through the conversion process without a hitch.

Applixware uses the ELF programming language to provide a consistent macro environment among the components, which are tied together by a single Applixware desktop application. For the truly ambitious, Applix provides a developer’s version that comes with “Applix Builder,” its application-development tool. Other attractive Applixware features include real-time updates from spreadsheets and forms support in the HTML editor. Applixware is even multinational and supports the Euro currency symbol. Thanks in part to ELF, we found that Applixware components worked nicely together. For example, slide-show presentations can be linked to live data managed in an Applix spreadsheet.

Applixware should be a consideration for both power users and novices. We found its word-processing, spreadsheet, database, graphics, and presentation tools to be feature-rich and easy to use. With the included e-mail support, many office users may never have to leave the confines of the Applixware suite.

Suites Star Office CD

Sun StarOffice for Linux Professional Edition

$99; CD only: $10; Download: free


PROS: Integrated document approach; network install

CONS: Limited import/export filters

StarOffice really gives Applixware a run for its money. And if Sun has its way, it’ll really give MS Office a run for its money too. StarOffice matches Applixware component for component and even adds a few that Applix is missing, like StarSchedule and StarDiscussion. These handle scheduling tasks and Internet newsgroups, respectively.

StarOffice is built around StarWriter, a word processor and HTML editor. StarCalc and StarBase provide spreadsheet support and database support. StarImpress is StarOffice’s slide-show presentation package, while StarChart, StarDraw, and StarImage bring charting, drawing, and image editing to the party. StarMail is the POP3 mail client, with PGP encryption support.

StarOffice clearly has Microsoft in its sights. It even has help wizards that are very similar in look and feel to those found in MS Office. Dubbed AutoPilots in StarOffice, they walk users through complex chores step by step. Sun’s recent acquisition of StarOffice is seen as a major counteroffensive in its continuing battle with Microsoft for the software market of the 21st century. So expect to see a lot more of StarOffice in the coming months.

StarOffice comes with some very good documentation. Its biggest weakness is a limited set of import/export filters. They’ve obviously decided to focus on the most important ones, such as Microsoft Office 97, and left out support for older and more esoteric word processors.

StarOffice addresses most users’ office requirements very nicely. Notably, it was the only suite to include a scheduling application.

Suites Corel Box

Corel WordPerfect for Linux

$69; Server Edition: $495; Download: free


Pros: Character mode and server version; integrated document approach

Cons: Limited database support; not a full office suite

In general, Corel WordPerfect for Linux met and exceeded our expectations for a stand-alone word processor. While not as functional as the WordPerfect Suite we have used on Windows 98, WordPerfect for Linux still provides the performance and features we have come to expect from Corel. A full-blown WordPerfect Office suite for Linux is forthcoming.

WordPerfect comes packaged with over 130 fonts and has many unique features, like Corel’s document version tracking system. This can come in very handy when multiple users are revising the same document. WordPerfect also offers a built-in file manager, which can serve to shelter novices from the complexities of the Linux filesystem.

Bundled with Adobe Acrobat Reader and over 5,000 clip art images, WordPerfect for Linux represents a good value and is a competent tool for the average office. The complete WordPerfect Office suite will round out the missing features by incorporating applications such as the world-famous CorelDraw. But there’s no need to wait if you don’t need these tools.

Suites KDE Office guy

KDE KOffice

Free (download only)


Pros: Complete office suite; regularly updated

Cons: Requires KDE; import/export filters still in development

KDE KOffice is an ambitious free-software project that is developing a complete object-based office environment on top of the KDE desktop environment. KDE itself ships with some Linux distributions like Caldera’s OpenLinux and is of course available from the KDE.org Web site. KOffice utilizes the KDE object model (KOM), which is based on CORBA.

Documents in KOffice are compound objects. KOffice itself consists of a set of matching applets that interact with the objects. KWord provides word processing and HTML page generation. KSpread is the suite’s spreadsheet. KPresenter is used to build and present slide shows while KChart and KDiagramm provide charting functions. KIllustrator is an object-based drawing package. There are also specialized tools like KFormula for representing complex mathematical formulas within documents. KoHTML is a Web browser that can even be embedded within a document. As it stands today, KOffice does not yet incorporate features such as e-mail and scheduling, although it may in the future.

KOffice has breadth, but its track record is short. This is glaringly evident in its extremely limited import/export filter support. Work is ongoing in this area, but KOffice is not likely to match the capabilities of Applixware or StarOffice any time in the near future. This may put KOffice out of the running for heterogeneous office-suite environments where document exchange is important. Still, KOffice provides a sufficient office environment for most users and has obvious appeal for KDE enthusiasts.


GNOME Workshop

Suites GnomeWorking

The GNOME office suite, Workshop, is similar in concept to the KDE KOffice. Both are free office suites that tie together open source applications from different sources and use CORBA technology to bind those applications together. We found GNOME Workshop to be in a state of flux but impressive nonetheless. Some of its components, like the GIMP image editor, have a long track record and an extensive feature list. Many of the other components are very new.

GNOME Workshop has an unfinished feel to it at the present time. For example, it currently comes with three different word processors. We looked at SourceGear Inc.’s AbiWord. The other two are GWP and Chris Lahey’s Go.

The version of AbiWord we perused was a late beta, so it is still being improved. We found it to be a capable and compact word processor, and it was a much quicker download than the other word processor packages we reviewed.

AbiWord also suffers from a serious lack of document-exchange capabilities. SourceGear has some work to do before AbiSoft will be on the same level as StarOffice, Applixware, or WordPerfect.

The GNOME office suite incorporates a host of other components, including the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), Gnumeric spreadsheet, the Guppi graphing and statistical-analysis package, the GYVE vector drawing package, and a PowerPoint-like presentation program named Achtung. There is also a basic database front end called gnome-db, although it is a bit rough around the edges. Gnome-db is likely to be of more interest to developers working with GNOME Workshop than to the average user. Other end-user applications in the suite include the Dia diagram and flowchart editor, the gnome-pim calendar and address book, the Electric Eyes image viewer, and the Genius scientific calculator. Although not as tightly integrated yet as the other products we’ve seen, GNOME Workshop seems to be building upon a strong foundation.


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