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Running MS-Office on Linux

Clippy and Tux together at last

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Review There's been a lot of talk in the tech press lately about whether CodeWeavers' Crossover Office for Linux will draw Windows users. The theory here is that a fair number of home users and a vast lot of businesses naturally despise Windows, but can't give it up because they adore MS Office. Home computer users may have learned it in school and be habituated to it, and they may take their work home now and then. If the uni or the office uses MSO, they'll obviously need it on their PCs.

For businesses, the savings from an open-source OS have got to be tantalizing; but the learning curve on a new office suite is also a productivity curve -- and that, obviously, costs money.

Microsoft Office, the theory goes, is what keeps home users demanding Windows PCs, and what keeps businesses capitulating to confiscatory license fees from MS for every piece of tin in their shops, while wasting valuable man hours doing license audits in terror of a visit from the BSA shock troops. They'd be delighted to move to an open source operating system so long as they could run their favorite applications.

And of course MS Office is the killer app to end all killer apps. It certainly kept Apple from collapsing into a singularity in spite of its obvious determination to do so. You can find a reasonable open-source substitute for just about everything MS offers you, but for that one, glaring exception.

So naturally, CodeWeavers kicked up a storm with their Wine-fuelled Office installer called Crossover Office 1.0. Even ZD-Net Chief Microsoft Apologist David Coursey rated it not bad, while maintaining (with some personal satisfaction, we're tempted to imagine) that nothing will bring Linux to the desktops of the masses. Perhaps that's why he went easy on it.

The user experience

Well of course we had to give it a go for ourselves. To begin, we all know what a version x.0 is -- it's the beta you pay for. And this is something CW is refreshingly up-front about. They tell you precisely what works and what doesn't, and precisely how well and how poorly. Indeed, they're so up-front that you can skip the review below and just read it off their Web site here, because things went exactly as predicted.

When CW tells you the install works smoothly, they're not kidding. I had Office installed and running in about fifteen minutes, with no hiccoughs -- and no re-booting, naturally. When they tell you that Word and Excel work very well, they're not kidding either. (Note, 'work well,' not 'look good.')

When they tell you that TTF needs some work, that may be a bit of an understatement or a bit of modesty, depending on how you configure Office. The problem here, as all Linux users know, is Apple licensing hassles. But this is going to be rectified in the very near future, we're assured.

Now you're thinking, 'ahaah, I've got TTF anti-aliasing fixed on my Linux machine.' Would 'twere. With a default installation, Office doesn't receive the benefit of FreeType's OK (if not great) anti-aliasing for TTF. No, the fonts are blocky, clunky, jagged, just as they were before you learned the trick of fixing them with the bytecode_interpreter statement (and with that Apple license in hand, no doubt).

But if you go to Office Setup, Configuration, and deselect "Use internal FreeType library", you're likely to get a pleasant surprise. I'm very grateful to reader Phil Messenger for pointing this out.

You can see the default mess for yourself in these two screen shots, winword here and kword here.

But now look what happens (assuming you've un-crippled TTF in your FreeType setup) when you force Office to use your FreeType fonts. It's not all that bad if you don't get too close to the screen. Indeed, Kword is only slightly cleaner and smoother.

All the screens looked a good deal prettier on the monitor. The resolution here isn't exactly photographic, but the differences in quality carry over evenly.

Whereas MS Word ran quite well, we're warned that the Office Assistant is nowhere near ready for prime time. But of course I had to play with it (see screen shots above). And yes, Clippy somehow managed to reboot my machine from a user account -- something I personally haven't done in weeks. This appears to have been in swift retaliation for shutting him off. All right; fair is fair.

When CW tells you that IE is buggy, you'd better listen. You get the smooth scrolling, which I've always liked in IE, but it feels like it has a mind of its own. It's smooth the way a waterbed is smooth. Full-screen mode, with the auto-hiding favorites bar (which I've also long admired), is completely broken. Adding favorites is broken. The fonts don't look half as good as what you can manage with KDE and FreeType 2.x on Netscape or Mozilla.

Outlook is quite sad-looking. The 'wizard' doesn't work, but this is hardly a loss. It's easy enough to set up a mail or news account manually. No, it's the HTML rendering, which makes Outlook so popular with the point-and-drool crowd and so handy as a virus and spam server, that's disappointing. If I'm going to handle a dangerous toy, I expect at least some entertainment value.

At least, due to the way Office runs on Linux, we'll get some security improvements automatically. Exactly how well malicious code will run within the Office environment on Linux remains to be seen, as I'm sure it will be soon enough. It's reasonable to expect that most attacks specific to Office applications will perform up to snuff, and that attacks exploiting Office apps to get at the rest of the machine will require considerable modification.

I didn't test PowerPoint or Lotus Notes. CW says that PowerPoint has a few bugs but runs fairly well. Ditto for Lotus Notes.

The company also says it will provide free upgrades of the entire 1.0.x series to everyone who buys 1.0. It also says that numerous fixes will be available within a matter of weeks. Considering how honest they've been with the product's shortcomings, there's no reason to doubt it.

As for why the rather buggy 1.0 has been released at all, we may consult this bit of refreshing honesty from CW:

By purchasing Crossover, "you will be helping to provide a much needed source of income to a Free Software company that has provided a large range of valuable improvements to one of the most key Free Software Projects - Wine."

I really don't have any use for MS-anything on Linux, but supporting Wine is a decent goal. I'd probably never buy Crossover or ever use Wine (not to be confused with wine, which optimizes the Linux experience admirably, I've found); but I'd happily donate fifty bucks once a year in the interests of those who would.

To be honest, the thing I like best about Linux is that it doesn't run Microsoft applications. For me, the real Christmas present would be actually-functional import and export filters for Koffice. I don't need IE when I've got Mozilla, which is far more privacy friendly and almost as nice-looking; I don't need Outlook or Outlook Express with their warm friendliness towards Web bugs and malicious JavaScript and ActiveX when I've got Kmail, which displays all my spam in nice, safe plain-text; and I don't need Word or Excel, though I do very much need good filters for the otherwise very decent, and perfectly free, office suite I've got.

I do hope Saint Nick is reading this... ®

Test system:
P4, 2.2GHz
Intel 850 mobo
512MB RDRAM
Maxtor 40GB ATA-133, 7200-RPM
nVidia GeForce3 Ti-500, 64MB
nVidia kernel, GLX 1.0-2880
Linux kernel 2.4.18
KDE 2.2.2
FreeType 2.0.9
XF86 4.2.0

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