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The Time Is Now: Cross-platform Competitors to Microsoft Office

Purely coincidentally or not, while Microsoft grapples with big legal issues around the Windows-specific MS Office, household names like IBM, Intel, and Sun are particularly busy these days beefing up software for rival office productivity suites that run across Linux, Windows, and OS.

For example, earlier this month, IBM Lotus released version 1.3 of its two-year-old Symphony suite. Lotus also announced intentions to deliver yet major update to the suite--codenamed Vienna--in the first half of next year, the same time frame as the next planned release of MS Office.

Also this month, Intel voiced plans for a first-time desktop version of Moblin, a new Linux-based OS currently being integrated with a quick-start office suite designed for netbooks.

At the same time, Microsoft is dealing with a court injunction that will force that company to stop shipping MS Word 2003 and 2007--key ingredients in its Windows-only office suites--by October 14 unless it succeeds in overturning the ruling by then.

The upshot of a patent dispute launched by Canadian-based company i4i back in 2007, the permanent injunction bans Microsoft from selling or importing to the US any Word product able to open .XML, .DOCX or .DOCM files containing custom XML code. Microsoft's expected attempts to develop a technical workaround for this problem might well push back delivery of the successor to Office 2007, too.

“This is an opportune time to emphasize that there are alternatives to Microsoft Office,” acknowledged Ed Brill, director of product management at Lotus, in an interview with Linux.com this week.

But, of course, the efforts of other large players in make inroads with open source and other cross-platform software long pre-date Microsoft's current legal snare.

Some 20 years ago, Sun Microsystems introduced its first version of StarOffice, also releasing the source code for an open source suite known as OpenOffice.org. These two suites, which continue to share the same code base, have kept adding new enhancements ever since. In new releases over the past year, improvements have appeared in each of the applications in the suite, the word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation, database, and graphics applications.

StarOffice 9.1--an update released in January of this year--is also accompanied by about a dozen cool application extensions – such as Sun Presenter Console, for instance--that aren't part of OpenOffice.

Like StarOffice, Lotus Symphony is based on OpenOffice.org., and so is a suite from Novell known as OpenOffice.org Novell Edition.

Unlike any maker of software that runs on Linux, Novell has been engaged in an interoperability pact with Microsoft since 2007. It stands to reason that some of the features in the most recent edition of the Novell suite are related to MS Office compatibility.

Yet IBM Lotus and Sun have been working hard on better MS Office compatibility for their respective cross-platform suites, too. Hmm. Could this help spur Microsoft users to explore new alternatives, do you think?

IBM Lotus Symphony

Runs on Linux and Windows

In version 1.3, the update released in September, IBM Lotus Symphony added the ability to import any MS Office file and convert it into Symphony format. Other additions include animation for slide presentations and enhanced data analysis. Lotus has also produced new widgetry such as a drag-and-drop tool for back-end integration between Symphony and MS SharePoint Server.

The future Vienna update won't necessarily be called Symphony 2.0 upon its release in 2010, said Lotus' Brill. “With Vienna, we're hoping to move beyond the OpenOffice. 3.0 code base,” he elaborated. Although Vienna's new feature set hasn't been finalized yet, Lotus is looking hard at adding support for Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2.

Lotus would also like to make more headway with supporting the Visual Basic (VB) macros used in MS Excel spreadsheets. Why? Brill contended that pre-programmed Excel spreadsheets, in long-term use by a company's employees, can act as big impediments to stepping away from MS Office.

Since its introduction in 2007, IBM Lotus Symphony has always been a tightly focused suite. It runs only on Linux and Windows, fewer than the four OS supported by StarOffice, and far fewer than the eight supported by OpenOffice.org.

Although its interface is especially elegant and easy-to-use, the suite from Lotus includes only a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package, leaving out the rest of the componentry in OpenOffice. IBM Lotus Symphony is available free of charge, but it's distributed under a proprietary rather than an open source license.

Sun's StarOffice

Runs on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, and Sun Solaris


As we've seen earlier in this series, SunOffice 9.1 and OpenOffice 3.1 – the latest editions of the two suites -- add word processing nuances that include text overlining (to accompany the previously supported underlining) and outline levels within paragraphs.

But overarchingly, the suites from Sun also add anti-aliasing for much spiffier-looking graphics. Each of the other applications has gained its own new niceties, too. To illustrate, you can now build complete, macro-based “database applications,” for instance. The presentation package now has new buttons for quickly increasing or decreasing font sizes.

The graphics app offers more flexible options for positioning axes on charts. A spreadsheet enhancement, “Formula Hot Hints,” lets you display the syntax of a formula directly next to the formula itself.

Sun's new extensions, however, belong to StarOffice, although they also work with OpenOffice.org. The extensions include Sun Connectors for linking up to MySQL, the Alfresco CMS (Content Management System) and MS SharePoint Server, for instance, along with Sun Weblog Publisher and Presenter Console.

With Weblog Publisher, you can use Sun's StarWriter to create and edit blog entries, and then post your entries to many popular blog servers.

Presenter Console, on the other hand, gives you extra control over slide show presentations, allowing you to view upcoming slide and slide notes, for example.

OpenOffice.org Novell Edition

Runs on Linux and Windows

Microsoft ally Novell has licensed fonts from AGFA which use the same or similar names to those available in the Microsoft suite. Novell has also backported various fixes for improved file sharing with MS Office, such as full conversion of embedded objects. As an additional differentiator, Novell supports import of WordPerfect files.

Like IBM Lotus Symphony, the Novell edition of OpenOffice.org is available only for Linux and Windows, as opposed to the full slate of OS supported by the community edition of OpenOffice. Novell provides its suite in quite different ways for the two different platforms.

The Linux edition is part of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED), a larger commercial software package tailored to Novell's own SUSE Linux distribution. SLED also incorporates a number of applications outside of the five OpenOffice.org components, including the Evolution e-mail package plus some Mono-based apps--produced in collaboration with Microsoft--like the Banshee music player and F-spot photo management tool.

Novell's current SLED 11 product bundles in OpenOffice.org 3.0, an earlier update which brought improved support for VB macros, among other things.

The Windows edition, which includes OpenOffice.org only, is available free of charge. (As with IBM Lotus Symphony, however, if you want technical support, you'll need to pay for that. In contrast, Sun rolls some technical support for StarOffice into the price of that suite--recently reduced, by the way, from $50 to $34.95.)

Emerging Applications for Moblin

Run on Linux and (possibly in the future) Windows

In July of this year, Phoenix Systems announced plans to combine and integrate its HyperSpace instant-on environment with Moblin 2, a Linux OS then devised solely for netbooks. The Phoenix software also began to incorporate HyperSpace Office, a word processor/spreadsheet/presentation package suite for netbooks designed by the folks at ThinkFree.

Although Moblin 2 is still in beta, at least four major netbook makers are now planning Moblin 2-based Linux netbooks: Dell, Asus, Acer, and Samsung.

Yet at its developers conference this month, Intel introduced the beta edition of Moblin 2.1, an update that will add native touch screen input and gesture support along with additional hardware drivers.

Even more significantly for users, Moblin 2..1 will come in three different flavors: handheld, netbook, and desktop, or “net top.”

Also at the forum in September, Intel and Microsoft unveiled plans to team up on Silverlight technology for Moblin, opening up the door to new sorts of cross-platform applications which might--or might not--include office suites.

 

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