Free Linux office suites

A lack of quality Linux office suites has long been one of reasons that some Linux users have decided to switch back to Windows. For many people, functionality similar to, and compatibility with, Microsoft Office is an essential requirement for their day-to-day usage of a computer. In this column we examine three very different office suites for Linux.

OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org (http://www.openoffice.org) is the open source version of Sun StarOffice, now a serious competitor to Microsoft Office on Windows. OpenOffice.org contains almost all of the features of StarOffice, without some non-essential components such as clip art and a font collection. The package is a high-quality, highly-integrated office suite that will instantly be familiar to users of Microsoft Office, as much of the interface is identical.

OpenOffice.org includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool and a drawing application, each of which has a large feature set that should suit everyone. It lacks the Access-like database application, Adabas D, included in Sun StarOffice. Integration between the applications is excellent: documents from each application can be imported seamlessly, allowing users to, for example, import charts generated from a spreadsheet into their word processing documents, with very little effort.

A stand-out feature of OpenOffice.org is its wide range of document compatibility, with most major office suites being well supported. I was able to open fairly complex Word documents with no problems in OpenOffice.org. Backward compatibility with earlier versions of StarOffice is also included.

On the downside, OpenOffice.org is a very large application, requiring in excess of 200MB of disk space. Memory usage is also significant, albeit much lower than earlier versions - about 50MB when the application is first started. I also encountered some problems while printing documents that required some tweaking of the default settings to make OpenOffice.org work properly with my printer.

KOffice

KOffice (http://www.koffice.org) is a relatively new office suite for Linux. Developed by the same team responsible for the K Desktop Environment, this small, highly integrated suite is trying to compete with the more established ones available. Included with KOffice are the standard word processor, spreadsheet, and pre­sentation tool, as well as a Visio-like planning tool.

The user interface to each KOffice application will be familiar to Microsoft Office users, but the feature set can at best be described as basic. Essential features such as footnotes are missing from KOffice, so it is currently only appropriate for users with the simplest of requirements.

Document compatibility is a planned feature for future versions of KOffice. Although support is available for Microsoft Office documents, in my tests KOffice was unable to correctly load Office documents of any serious complexity.

Integration between KOffice applic­ations is excellent, as is the overall per­formance of each application. KOffice is only 9MB compressed and a running application uses only about 15MB of memory when first started. KOffice is not yet ready for mainstream use, but it offers a lot of promise for future versions as it matures. KOffice requires either KDE2.x or KDE3.x.

GNOME Office

GNOME Office (http://www.gnome.org/gnome-office) is not a traditional, highly integrated office suite; instead, it is a collection of loosely coupled, independent applications under the umbrella of the GNOME Office project. As a result, the quality and feature set of GNOME Office applications vary wildly from the best available to very early in development. In some areas, multiple applications of similar functionality compete for the position. Curiously, OpenOffice.org is actually considered a part of GNOME Office.

GNOME Office contains some very high quality applications, including the GIMP (raster graphics), AbiWord (word processor) and Gnumeric (spreadsheet). All of these applications can be installed as stand-alone applications.

The integration between GNOME Office applications is poor. Exchanging documents between applications is mostly via standard formats and little effort has been made to provide links between applications. Document compatibility varies greatly between GNOME Office applications.

Many of the GNOME Office applications are worth a serious look on their own, but, as a package, GNOME Office lacks many of the integration features that make such suites attractive. Gnome Office requires GNOME 1.4.

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Alastair Cousins

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