We often hear that Linux lacks the breadth and depth of applications to make it a successful operating system. Any technology moves forward by first making inroads into niches, where it is appreciated by specialists doing specialized work. Accordingly, Linux has started in the domain of computer programmers and computer network administrators, and from there it branched out into scientific laboratories. Technical specialists read the same narrow publications, attend the same meetings, and talk to each other, so that what is current among them may be entirely unknown outside their niche. Assuming for the moment that these specialists can find what they need in their fields, what about more general business users? Can you run an office today using Open Source products? And how will users from the Windows world ever adapt to them?
If you are willing to go with an Open Source operating system, such as BSD or Linux, and to run a mixture of Open Source and proprietary software, the number of products is increasing, and there are a number of familiar faces out there. WordPerfect users, for instance, will find that their old favorite is alive and well, and there are also free products that bear uncanny resemblances to Windows products. In this chapter we’ll take a look at some of the currently available products that can run a business, and look at some of the upcoming products as well.
End-users and managers will be happy to know that there is a choice of office suites already available on Linux, with more to come. Users coming from the Windows world will recognize the Corel package, Office 2000, now fully available on Linux. Law firms and other traditional users of WordPerfect should feel right at home, and reviews indicate that it is only a hair behind Microsoft Office in functionality (which so few of us take full advantage of). Users coming from the UNIX world will recognize an old friend in Applixware Office, which receives increasingly better reviews with each new release. Adventurers who want to try something different (and free!) can install Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice, an office suite originating in Germany (it even runs on Windows).
Applixware for Linux, from Applix, Inc. (http://www.applix.com/applixware/), was successful in UNIX as Applixware Office before it extended itself to include a Linux version as well as a version for Windows 95; it currently ships with the Caldera and SuSE Linux distributions. The package includes a word-processor, spreadsheet, drawing program, presentation package, e-mail client, and a set of document filters (file format converters) to ease the job of moving documents — including those created in difficult proprietary formats such as Windows — to and from other formats. The programs are capable of accepting real-time data. Applix recently set up a subsidiary, VistaSource, Inc. (http:// www.vistasource.com) to deal in Linux products and strengthen its ties to the Open Source community.
For users of Palm Computing’s hand-held organizers, there is the Linux Palm Desktop, a Linux-based desktop that integrates the schedule and other Palm data with Applixware Office. The Palm Desktop was built with the Extension Language Facility (ELF) development tool formerly bundled with the office suite; this has been licensed as Applix SHELF under the GNU LGPL to enable third-party developers to improve Palm Desktop. It is downloadable for free at the Applix site for Open Source projects (http://applixware.org). Because Open Source users are interested in cross-platform availability, they should note that there is a Sun-certified Java version of Applixware Office called Anyware Office that needs only a Java-enabled browser to run. There are no free versions of the Applixware or Anyware products.
If you need accounting software for small and medium businesses, UNIX-proven proprietary packages are available from Appgen Business Software, Inc. (http://www.appgen.com/). There is an Open Source personal accounting package, GNUCash (http://gnucash.org/), which currently has about 80 percent of the functionality of the basic Quicken package. As it improves, you can watch and see whether Open Source developers will push the project to grow complex and stable enough for small businesses.
Corel Office 2000 (http://www.corel.com) has just come to Linux, and the reviews are favorable. The Standard Edition includes version 9 of important office software: WordPerfect, Quattro Pro (spreadsheet), Corel Presentations, and CorelCENTRAL (Personal Information Manager and scheduler with Palm connection). The Deluxe Edition adds other software, including the Paradox 9 database.
Sun Microsystems, Inc. recently startled the world by acquiring Star Division, a German-owned firm that had produced the leading office suite in Germany (after Microsoft Office). The object of making this addition to the product line is not only to add an office suite to the Solaris application line, but also to provide another iteration of the Sun strategy to sell servers by promoting software that is server-intensive. StarOffice originated as a desktop office suite, but Sun intends to rework it into a browser-enabled, server-based application called StarPortal that will once again promote large servers and thin clients. Accordingly, the server version is for sale, but the stand-alone desktop version is available for free to all who care to download it, even if they want to use it in a business (there is optional paid support). Because personal use of StarOffice had been free under Star Division, Sun is making a gesture towards the Open Source community; it is not coincidence, of course, that the Windows stand-alone versions of StarOffice are likewise free. The suite is currently winning high praise from users and reviewers, including PCWeek Labs.
Like Applixware, StarOffice has a strong UNIX history, but it also runs on the Windows platforms as well as OS/2 and Linux. Like Applixware’s Linux Palm Desktop, StarOffice has a Schedule product that synchronizes data with the Palm hand-held organizer.
In view of the fact that some Microsoft Office users are growing weary of the abundance of features that confuse and hinder, perhaps the relatively light weight (150MB) and flexibility of StarOffice will put it in the position of the emerging product as described in Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: When a product becomes too good and too expensive for its intended use, buyers will pick up an emerging technology that manages to do the job, even if it is not so richly-featured.
StarOffice is a workhorse, however, containing a browser and editors for HTML, formulas, and images. In addition, it contains its own desktop, enabling a company that uses it across platforms to have a very similar work interface on all of them. Like other filter sets, the one supplied with StarOffice does a creditable job, but cannot guarantee to take across all the formatting of the original document. Sun says it is working on open standards for document formatting, and the Open Source community hopes that proprietary data format standards will gradually wither away or at least be openly described. The free StarOffice download is 65MB and can be found at http:// www.sun.com/products/staroffice.
SmartWare is probably not a candidate for general office use because it contains only a word processor, spreadsheet, and relational database; it originates in the developer space and contains a Rapid Application Development (RAD) tool. This cross-platform tool (Windows, DOS, and UNIX) is available in a limited-function version for Linux for free. Fifty dollars will purchase the complete Linux version. Angoss Software, Inc. (http://www.angoss.com) recently spun off SmartWare Corporation (http://www.smartware2000.com) to handle the product.
Like SmartWare, the GoldMedal products for office automation (http://www.goldmedal.com/gm/index.html) serve to demonstrate that there is a lot of software originating in niches outside general business purposes (such as software development and scientific applications) that might contain the functionality that you are looking for in Linux. GoldMedal’s spreadsheet is three-dimensional, and its relational database is object-oriented. American users who imagine that Microsoft dominates the rest of the world should note that these applications come from abroad.
At the present time, Lotus is evaluating whether to put its Smart Suite on Linux; the eSuite for Java is already cross-platform.
Although they are not yet finished at the time of this writing, two Open Source suites attract attention with their promises. AbiSuite and GNOME Office both tend to coordinate and incorporate the work of other projects, but each offers a distinctive product at this time. (GNOME stands for GNU Network Object Model Environment.) These are gratis projects under the GNU GPL, and even the commercial products discussed previously are cheaper than market leader Microsoft Office. The emergence of Open Source office software is a sign that margins are sure to drop further as these products head into the commodity category.
AbiSuite is the grand plan of the AbiSource Project (http://www.abisource.com), sponsored by the SourceGear Corporation. SourceGear intends its AbiSuite business to work like other service and support businesses: the product is free under the GNU GPL, and SourceGear plans to make money by selling support, documentation, and packaged versions of the software. For this reason the code is freely available and modifiable, but the Abi trademarks remain firmly with SourceGear. The first AbiSuite application is AbiWord (described later). It will be followed by AbiFile, and AbiShow, all cooperatively developed as Open Source projects. Rather than start an AbiCalc project, AbiSuite will include the GNOME Gnumeric (http://www.gnome.org/gnumeric/) spreadsheet because of its rapid development progress.
The promising GNOME Office project (formerly GNOME Workshop) is in a very early stage of development (http://www.gnome.org/gnome-office/). The first application, a spreadsheet described later, has not yet advanced as far as AbiWord in version numbering, but it, like the products that follow it, are based on important open standards. By using Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) standards, the GNOME Office applications will be built in a modular, object-oriented fashion, allowing easy reuse of code. The Bonobo document model used in Workshop will enable easy cross-application data sharing and dynamic updating. More information about GNOME can be found under "Graphical Products and Interfaces" later in this chapter.
The Bonobo Document Model
Miguel de Icaza, the leader of the GNOME Project and founder of Helix Code (http://helixcode.com/), a firm that sells and supports GNOME software, likes to name his projects after monkeys.
The Bonobo project (http://developer.gnome.org/arch/component/bonobo.html) is building the GNOME architecture for reusable components and compound documents. Although the component framework is based on the open CORBA standard, the intention is to emulate Windows ActiveX. Windows used to call this technology OLE2 (Object Linking and Embedding). The GNOME project is intended for the benefit of all UNIX systems, and Bonobo will enable users to tie applications together and to create compound documents, such as documents containing spreadsheets instantly updated from database changes. Drag-and-drop capability is part of the plan.
Eventually Bonobo will tie together the GNOME Office applications, but because its architecture is so deep, it will take a long time to pull everything together. The most advanced GNOME Office application is Gnumeric, and it has made the most progress with Bonobo. In the meantime Helix Code is building a workgroup application called Evolution on top of Bonobo. All its elements are Bonobo components, and are fully accessible through CORBA so that applications may be scripted to work automatically together. Because the components include such elements as e-mail, scheduling, task management, and a PIM, Evolution’s plans include making it communicate with Lotus Notes servers and Microsoft Exchange. This integration will enable client-by-client infiltration of Linux (or UNIX) software into offices.
Just as AbiSuite has taken on GNOME’s Gnumeric as its Open Source spreadsheet, GNOME Office has designated AbiWord as its word processor. Because the two applications are busy cloning Microsoft Word and Excel features, Windows users should feel at home using them.
Koffice (http://koffice.kde.org/) is still in the alpha stage of development, but it is based on the more popular Linux desktop, KDE, the K Desktop Environment (http://www.kde.org/). KOffice currently offers early versions of its various components, including KWord, KSpread, KPresenter, and Katabase. All the components of the office suite are embeddable in each other, including the drawing applications: KImage (for bitmaps), KIllustrator (for vector drawings), KImage (the image viewer), and KChart (the chartmaker). The KDE desktop comes installed on several ready-to-run Linux computers, including the NetWinder and systems from VA Linux.
The big question in a business that currently uses Microsoft Office is whether the business will be able to adapt to using the office software that is available on Linux or BSD. The answer will depend on the business and will require careful evaluation of what portions of the business might make the switch, based on existing functionality of available products.
On the whole, the graphical interfaces on the suites just discussed are enough like Windows not to cause undue learning problems; the real issues will be how much users are dependent on templates or macros that they expect to find in documents they use. Against this shortcoming can be balanced the fact that every time there is a new Windows version of Word, its users seem to be unable to bring along their customized interfaces and macros, and frequently find that documents are not readable between the versions. Seen this way, it should not be much more of a problem than was moving from Microsoft Word 95 to Word 97.
There is a rumor — or perhaps fantasy — abroad that Microsoft has ported, will port, or is considering a port of its Office suite to Linux. Linux fanatics see this as inevitable, since they expect the imminent demise of Windows, and reason that Microsoft will want to salvage its Office suite income from the wreckage. Although Microsoft is always a keen student of competitors (a couple of years ago, people at a major Linux distributor told me that they shipped unbelievable numbers of their product to Redmond), and many people believe that the best thing for Windows and Office would be to rewrite them from the ground up, there are strong reasons for Microsoft not to make the move. For one, the porting of Office to Linux would sharply steepen the curve of Linux adoption. For another, the bringing over of all the products and their underlying machinery in a way that would preserve compatibility with existing documents and applications would require an enormous investment that would be hard to justify, especially because such a move might kill the revenues generated by Windows and Office for Windows.
Corel brought WordPerfect 8 over to Linux as a straight port, but this means that each successive version of WordPerfect will require another port. For the long haul, Corel is investing in the free WINE project (http://www.winehq.com/) so that its Windows versions will run on Linux by means of a special layer created by WINE and make successive ports unnecessary. Windows developers are free to use the WINE material to extend the reach of their Windows products to the Linux environment.
Although there is no lack of free text editors on Linux (UNIX people can’t live without them), the number of graphics-based word processors is smaller. Besides the word processors in the suites mentioned previously, the chief contenders are discussed in this section.
WordPerfect was the first mainstream office application to come to Linux. It is obvious that Corel had long chafed in a $6 billion Windows office suite market that supported three contenders, one with a 90-percent market share. Corel’s attempt to move WordPerfect Office to Java was simply an earlier effort to enter a market not controlled by Microsoft. Corel intends not only to put all its major products on Linux, but also to offer its own Linux distribution.
Reviews indicate that the Linux version of WordPerfect works well with Microsoft Word documents, and the TurboLinux distribution includes the free (personal use only) version. Federal agencies can now purchase the Linux WordPerfect from the GSA schedule, and law offices, which are heavily networked and important users of WordPerfect, now have an opportunity to consider moving their operations over to Linux.
There are numerous free graphical word processors available on the Internet, but in practical terms AbiWord is the leader. While usable, it has not yet reached ready-for-ordinary-folks stage, although it does provide basic functionality. The groundswell behind it eclipsed the only other contender for top free spot, the Maxwell word processor, which was originally designed for commercial release (http://www.eeyore-mule.demon.co.uk/). Although also under the GNU GPL, developer interest in the Maxwell died away in 1998, perhaps because it is based on the older Motif widget set, while AbiSource uses the GNOME Tool Kit (GTK) for its graphics.
As part of its Open Source stance, the AbiWord .abw file format is ASCII, marked up with XML. As a result, it is readable in any text editor, and it can output HTML and RTF formats. There are versions for UNIX (including Linux), Windows, and even the BeOS. At this stage it does not yet support GIF or JPEG graphics file formats, but uses PNG format instead. It handles only Adobe Type 1 fonts, not TrueType.
Currently there is a mailing list to use for support problems; paid support programs will be available for those who want them after AbiWord reaches release 1.0.
Xess is a powerful Linux spreadsheet originated by three North Carolina State University (NCSU) faculty members. In its present form it is a proprietary product published by Applied Information Systems (http://www.ais.com) and marketed by the Business Logic Corporation (http://www.blcorp.com/index2.htm). The full-function Linux version retails for $195, with lesser versions for $39 and $70. Versions for other platforms (UNIX, VMS, and Windows 95), including specialized versions for engineering and finance, sell for considerably more. Its most remarkable feature is the ability to work with real time data feeds, so that values may be changed automatically by outside feeds while the user watches (for instance) the graphing of the results.
The three NCSU professors have allowed the developers of the free Gnumeric spreadsheet, part of the GNOME project, to study the original Xess source code; this help has accounted for rapid development of Gnumeric. In fact, the progress on Gnumeric has been so swift that the AbiSource project has decided not to work immediately on a spreadsheet, since the Gnumeric project should be able to provide one soon. The eventual office suite, called GNOME Office, will be under the GNU GPL, just as the AbiSource suite is expected to be.
The movement of the large database vendors onto Linux signaled the beginnings of serious interest in the platform by the business community. We can call the roll — Informix (the first), Oracle, Sybase, IBM DB2 — in addition, companies like Corel and Computer Associates have said that they will put their entire product lines onto Linux. Corel’s Paradox 9 has already arrived.
Oracle likewise has made this commitment. If you are evaluating whether Open Source is here to stay, watch these companies to see whether, after the initial flurry of placing some products there, they keep up the momentum of porting to Linux. It is not a trivial decision to add a platform to a product line, and decision makers in those companies will be watching the market closely to see whether continued investments in the transition make business sense. One place to watch to keep an eye on the availability of databases for Linux is the links page at http://linas.org/linux/db.html.
Before the large database vendors noticed what was happening on Linux, a number of smaller vendors had already taken advantage of the need for their products. Many of these were foreign firms, such as ADABAS D (from Software AG); Solid, from Solid Information Technology (http://www.solidtech.com); and FlagShip, a Clipper-type product. MySQL has proved very popular on Linux, and UNIX hands will recognize PostgresSQL. Databases you may not have thought about in a while have been here, such as Pick (the entire Pick system was quietly ported to Linux some time ago), Raima, and POET (object-oriented).
So far we have seen that Linux has basic desktop productivity products (the office suites), and business tools that are more familiar to back-end operations than to end-users (the databases). There is a missing tier of middle-management software that offers obvious opportunities for anyone who wants to enter this space.
* Personal Information Managers (PIM) are vital products; they combine schedule and appointment information with contact information. At their simplest, they can be used by everyone; at their most sophisticated, they turn into contact management tools.
* Sales Management tools are more sophisticated contact management tools that link to centralized company databases and coordinate the efforts of a sales team and their support personnel to deal with prospects and customers.
* Decision Support products can come in many different forms. Often they are spreadsheet add-ons (for that matter, the Linux spreadsheets could use add-ons of all sorts), such as those that go beyond sensitivity analysis to calculating the outcomes of various probabilities and variances inserted by the user. Others use decision models based on decision trees or multiattribute analysis.
There may be Decision Support packages out there among the thousands of scientific packages available for Linux, but it is likely that their use requires expertise in Linux. Similarly, just as Windows users have lots of favorite little utilities that tell the time, print documents as little booklets, track client hours, and compress files, Linux users have their little favorites, but their interfaces are very likely to be command-line driven rather than graphical.
Such Utilities might be listed as "semi missing" products. Enterprising developers may very well see the opportunity to take some of these command-line utilities and give them a graphical interface, and sell the results to eager users. It should be possible for a Windows brand name to do this, since the utilities themselves would not readily port to Linux, but a familiar interface would be appreciated by customers.
Because application availability is changing so rapidly, you will need to take a look on the Internet for information on what is available, and even then you will have to look carefully. For instance, the good news is that IBM’s ViaVoice product is coming to Linux; the bad news (for the end-user) is that it is the software development kit (SDK) containing the voice-recognition technology, not the end-user product; users will have to wait for applications that use the SDK to incorporate speech recognition.
The biggest gulf between Windows and UNIX users is the interface. Although UNIX does have graphical user interfaces (GUIs), hard-core UNIX users tend to prefer to use the command-line or "console interface." Building programs in UNIX is simply a matter of stringing the right text files together and the fact that simple text editors evolved into programming tools (and in the case of EMACS, a way of life) only reinforced the preference for the command line (called the "console interface"). The surest way to divide a random group of UNIX developers for some contest is to have them split into EMACS users and vi users (Richard Stallman wrote EMACS, and Linus Torvalds prefers vi).
Many a DOS user moving to Windows felt the same way about the command line: it was quicker and easier to do something by dropping into DOS than by trying to do it in Windows. Windows 95 was fairly unmanageable without DOS, and real control of Windows has always required visits into the text-based Registry to edit it. UNIX users justifiably believe that real power lies in typing text on the screen.
Realistic Linux fans have come to realize that Windows users (and even Windows developers) are so wedded to their GUIs that there is no practical hope of bringing them to Linux without taking this foible into account. Open Source developers have aggressively souped up their GUIs and hope for the day when Windows users will be attracted to Linux by the power and appearance of the many GUIs available for it.
An important difference and eventual advantage of UNIX over Windows is that UNIX applications, originating from a command-line or console world, have had their Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) added at another layer. There are still many Linux and BSD applications for which there is no GUI at all. As a matter of fact, application developers prefer to write pure application code, and prefer that graphical people tend to the GUI, although project organization often requires the application developer to provide the GUI interface. The advantages of separating the two layers include the following:
* The application and its graphics can run on one machine, and the application results and the GUI can be sent to a much smaller machine;
* As GUIs make progress, or as fashions in interfaces change, the underlying application need not be completely rewritten;
* Applications that output synthesized speech (for the disabled) work more easily if they are fed the lines of print that characterize the console mode of display; similarly,
* GUIs that emphasize large-print display throughout their menus and the underlying applications can simply be layered atop existing applications.
Linux and BSD applications with a GUI commonly use an X Window server to provide the basic graphics capability. Since any machine may run a number of servers, as well as be connected to other machines or servers, it is usual for a stand-alone machine to run its own X Window server.
In addition, each machine carries a number of software libraries that are called by applications. Not long ago, Motif (and its royalty-free look-alike, Lesstif) were popular; currently the Open Source GNU Tool Kit (GTK) is one of the basic building blocks. The more popular desktop, KDE, is built atop the Qt Toolkit from Troll Tech, while the other popular desktop, GNOME, is built atop the object-oriented version of the GTK, GTK+.
Business users who want a Windows-like interface will pick KDE without any hesitation. You may want to try out GNOME — you can always put it away and go back to KDE after looking at it — but GNOME is currently a less finished and a less stable product than KDE. The smoothest and most stable version of GNOME has just been issued by Helix Code, but the user will have to compile the code to run it. Both desktops are less than three years old, but making rapid progress, and both are working towards object-oriented modular design and eventual possible interoperability, so that applications that run on the one will run on the other. Users who choose KDE can still generally run GNOME-based applications, and KDE users should be sure that they include the GNOME libraries when they install their Linux systems.
If you are new to Linux and are coming from Windows, KDE will be easier to adjust to, and give fewer problems than GNOME. GNOME probably has a stronger following among technology buffs, who can handle its intricacies. It is more customizable than KDE, and its architecture may eventually make it the leading desktop. But if you are getting your Linux help from a GNOME user, you would be better off to go with GNOME.
The chief reason that there is a GNOME is that Open Source developers wanted a desktop in the free tradition of the GNU tools, and KDE is built atop a toolkit that requires royalties for applications that are distributed commercially. GNOME was also inspired by the great graphical progress made by Open Source developers in the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), an Open Source imitation of Photoshop and the leading Open Source application for photo manipulation, image construction, and similar tasks. GNOME will take a page from the Microsoft Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) book by using the open CORBA standard to achieve the same effect.
Watch for Another GUI
Four of the original Macintosh team have founded a company to produce and support a new interface for Linux, Eazel (http://www.eazel.com/), that will eliminate the need to use the console (command-line) mode. The GNOME project is cooperating in the infrastructure for Eazel. Some people believe that having even two competing interfaces is too many, but Open Source is about choice. Choice, among other benefits, provides opportunities for companies to simplify choices for users — that’s how AOL became successful.
The good news from the GUI and desktop front is that Linux developers are embracing the idea that if they are to achieve World Domination, they will have to accommodate the ordinary point-and-click users they formerly dismissed as not part of the real computer population. As their home page (http://www.gnome.org) says, "The GNOME project intends to build a complete, easy-to-use desktop environment for the user, and a powerful application framework for the software developer." The project’s leader, Miguel de Icaza, says that his attitude toward ordinary users has improved greatly since he began the project.
KDE, in active competition with GNOME and ahead so far in the race, emphasizes its responsiveness to users by posting a Wish List page where they can state what they want and examine the wishes of other users; votes are held on the relative desirability of the wished-for features (http://homepage.uibk.ac.at/service/wishlist/). As recently as late spring 2000 it read:
There are currently 1131 wishes and 87 fulfilled wishes (a total of 1218 wishes) from 722 different authors in this list, the last one changed on Friday, May 19th 2000, 20:23:59.
Red Hat, with its heavy emphasis on ease-of-use and ease-of-installation, has become an important sponsor of GNOME by setting up the Red Hat Advanced Development Laboratory (RHAD) and hiring several GNOME developers. The resulting code is issued as Open Source software under the GPL and LGPL. The GNOME project itself sponsors the writing of front-ends to command-line driven applications, as well as the writing of new applications.
Because the different interfaces, like the applications, depend on the presence of certain libraries on the machine, new users should stick with one distribution in which everything needed has been provided. The problem of incompatible libraries is comparable to (Open Source fans will writhe as they read) Microsoft DLLs: having the wrong ones on your machine will keep some of your software from operating. Both the main desktops are working towards providing object-oriented wrappers for the various libraries so that they may be more compatible with each other. Interoperability is a big Open Source goal.
There are thousands of scientific applications available on Linux, so specialized that there is no point to summarizing them. Most of them depend on a command-line interface, and many are in the semi-finished state often found in software (and hardware, for that matter) developed by researchers for an immediate and specialized use. A good place to look is the page called Scientific Applications on Linux (http://SAL.KachinaTech.COM/index.shtml).
Research scientists are probably running UNIX at this time, if they have not already gone over to Linux. It is business users who are wondering whether they should evaluate Linux systems as possible supplements or replacements for their current computer operations, which are very likely to be Windows NT. The next chapter will take up the Linux vs. Microsoft question, and may help some of you decide whether and where to start with an Open Source system.
Next chapter: Linux vs. Windows
Table of Contents
Copyright © 2000 by IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. Published under IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. Open Content License.