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OpenOSX Office 1.5.1

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OpenOSX Office 1.5.1 presents itself as an alternative to Microsoft Office 2004 (   , August 2004 ), and aims to compete with it by promising Office compatibility at the much lower price of $40. While Microsoft’s suite is the de-facto standard on both Macs and PCs, it is also quite expensive ($399 for the Standard edition; $499 for the Pro edition), and most people don’t need the extensive feature set.

OpenOSX Office includes AbiWord 2.2.0 for word processing, Gnumeric 1.4.0, a spreadsheet app, SodiPodi 0.34 to create vector images, and Diagram 0.94 to create flowcharts and schematic diagrams. SodiPodi and Diagram only partially make up for the suite’s lack of a presentation or a combination e-mail and calendar program to replace PowerPoint and Entourage. Each OpenOSX Office app is also freely available elsewhere.

As a suite, these Microsoft Office substitutes don’t quite make the grade. While the products can be used at the same time, they are not designed to be interoperable, as is the case with the Microsoft suite. While the word processor and the spreadsheet aren’t bad, they are not totally compatible with other than the simplest Microsoft Office files. The other applications are even less useful. And you still have to use a separate calendar and email application.

Non-Standard Environment

Although the OpenOSX Office programs run natively in OS X, they do so through a technology called X Windows, or X11. You must have X11 installed on your Mac to run the suite—and you’ll have to install it yourself from the Panther installation CDs or from Apple’s Web site.

If you haven’t used an X11 application before, you may be surprised to see how different it looks and feels than OS X. Some of the differences include nonstandard Open and Save dialogs (See first screenshot); Windows-like use of the Control key instead of the Command key; nonstandard Aqua-like interfaces; menus located within the document window rather than at the top of the screen; reliance on contextual menus; aliased fonts; floating icon-filled windows that aren’t attached to the main application window; unreliable copy and paste behavior from X11 to standard Mac apps; and not being able to open X11 applications directly from the Finder.

Working with Words

AbiWord is a very good word processor with a strong feature set that the developer claims to be compatible with Microsoft Word. While this is mostly true, it falls short of complete compatibility in some areas.

While AbiWord opened every Word file we threw at it, the result didn’t necessarily resemble the original file (See second screenshot). AbiWord can display images only in PNG format, ignores image placement commands, won’t run Word macros, and doesn’t handle shaded or bordered text in paragraphs. Tables are imported properly, though you may see changes in background colors and border styles, as AbiWord doesn’t support all of Word’s numerous options. Finally, Word’s reviewing features are present in AbiWord, though you’ll lose such niceties as the Reviewing pane and floating windows with author information.

OpenOSX Office version 1.5.1 also includes a fully OS X-native (no X11 required) version of AbiWord. While the Aqua version is still in development (and was included on the CD as a preview release), it loads quickly and has a much more Mac-like interface. Once it reaches final form, the OS X-native version of AbiWord will be the one most Mac users will prefer to run.

Working with Numbers

Along with AbiWord, the Gnumeric spreadsheet program has a finished feel to it that’s lacking in the other applications. Gnumeric implements nearly all of Excel’s core functions, and adds over 100 more of its own—for instance, there’s a whole suite of functions that handle the trading of stock options. Gnumeric can handle even complex Excel spreadsheets with ease, including those using advanced features such as array formulas and conditionals.

Charts are the area where you’ll find the biggest differences between Excel and Gnumeric. Though Gnumeric will display your Excel charts, it may do so differently than Excel. Whereas Excel offers more than 70 standard chart display types and more than 20 custom chart types, Gnumeric has only 26 to choose from. When you open a document that has a non-supported chart format, Gnumeric will convert it to a type it supports.

Gnumeric also doesn’t support any of Excel’s macros, though you can write your own if you’re a real programming wizard—Gnumeric can interact with Python, a programming language.

If you don’t rely on macros and have relatively straightforward charting needs, Gnumeric is a fine program that can handle demanding spreadsheet tasks.

Drawing Pictures

OpenOSX Office includes SodiPodi and Diagram, two drawing applications. SodiPodi is a vector-based drawing program, which means you can scale the images you create to any size. It uses Adobe’s Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format, so it’s well-suited for Web design. Unfortunately, SodiPodi is handicapped by an amazingly busy and complex interface (See third screenshot), and relies heavily on contextual menus. It also lacks detailed documentation, although OpenOSX did write an 11-page overview document, which includes some basic usage hints and explanations for the programs’ numerous icons and palettes.

Diagram, which is targeted at technical illustrators, is used to create flowcharts and schematic diagrams. As with SodiPodi, your first interaction with the program is also through a complex palette. There is help available for Diagram, as well as for the other OpenOSX apps except SodiPodi —but don’t look for it under the Help menu. Instead, there's an HTML-based help system in the application's folder.

Diagram works well, but there are other tools such as The Omni Group’s OmniGraffle (   ; September 2003 ) that do a better job (even with the difference in price)— and they have a traditional Mac interface.

Buyer Beware

OpenOSX Office is not so much a suite as a collection of applications that you can use at the same time. It does not offer much in the way of integration. There’s no shared clipboard or project center, as in Microsoft Office, and each application looks and feels completely different. The one suite-like element is the OpenOSX Office launcher, which lets you launch each program with a simple menu selection. Once running, though, none of the programs is aware of the other.

The drag-and-drop functionality of the Launcher, (which lets you open a document by dragging its icon over the program icon) works as described with two caveats. First, you must explicitly name your files with the proper extension (for example, .doc for Word, .xls for Excel), or dragging and dropping will fail. Second, when you open a document in this manner, OpenOSX Office launches another copy of the chosen application, and then opens the file in that new copy. This not only requires more time and memory, but it means you can’t easily flip back and forth between open documents within an application, as each window exists in a completely distinct copy of the application. This Windows-style behavior can drive Mac users crazy. You’ll have to use File: Open if you want each document to open in the same instance of the application.

The open-source applications in OpenOSX Office are updated frequently, but there’s no automatic way to install these upgrades. If you’re an experienced Unix user, you can update them yourself, though it’s not a trivial process. Future releases of OpenOSX Office may include an autoupdate capability, but for now, you must visit the OpenOSX site to check for updates.

Free Versions

You don’t have to buy OpenOSX Office to get any of the applications free of charge. The easiest way is to first install and use an application called Fink. But with Fink the installation process is a bit more complex.

You could also install OpenOffice 1.1, another free X11 office suite, or NeoOffice/Jg, a beta version of OpenOffice that runs without X11. Both of these suites install with a double-click, and their word processor is more Word-compatible than is AbiWord (the spreadsheet, though, isn’t as good as Gnumeric). NeoOffice/J is still in beta, but it feels more like a traditional Mac application.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

If you want to install and use an Office-type suite with minimal effort, OpenOSX Office gets the job done—as long as you’re willing to put up with the X11 environment’s oddities, don’t need it to include an e-mail or presentation application, and don’t need full Microsoft Office compatibility. Both the AbiWord 2.2.0 word processor and Gnumeric 1.4.0 spreadsheet program will meet the needs of many users, while SodiPodi 0.34 and Diagram 0.94 are less useful, given the numerous good alternatives. If you need seamless compatibility with Office files, though, you may find that OpenOSX Office is not worth the price of admission, or the trouble.

The Open and Save dialogs in X11 applications are much different and less functional than their OS X counterparts. File names have no icons, there’s no New Folder button, and there’s no way to select column view or list view.The top image is an original Word document, which includes a shaded text box and a centered image. The bottom image shows the same file opened in AbiWord; the text box has vanished, and the image is no longer centered. Also note the changed word wrap on each line, despite the font and size being the same.The main SodiPodi interface takes the usual horizontal menus, flips them vertically, and adds a whole bunch of confusing icons.
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