August 18, 2004

CrossOver Office 3.0.1 review

Author: Jem Matzan

What do you do when you need to use Windows programs in GNU/Linux? You could look for free software alternatives to those programs, but in some cases -- such as with Macromedia's proprietary Flash MX Web development environment -- there is no suitable replacement in GNU/Linux. That's where CrossOver Office by CodeWeavers comes in; using this software you can run a number of Windows programs in GNU/Linux without any loss in performance or stability. Too bad it's under a restrictive proprietary license.

Certainly if you've just switched to GNU/Linux, your first option should be to look for a free software program that will do what you need. Probably the most requested applications I've seen on message forums are Macromedia's Dreamweaver and Flash development tools, which don't yet have free software clones or native GNU/Linux editions as of this writing. You can hand-code your HTML and CSS files through editors like Bluefish and Quanta+, but they don't offer the WYSIWYG mode that Dreamweaver is known for, and there's simply no replacement for Macromedia Flash if you want to create rich content for the Web. So you either go without, or you find a way to run these programs on your new operating system through a virtual machine, emulator, or something similar.

CrossOver Office is not an emulator per se; neither is it a virtual machine. Instead it provides Windows application programming interfaces (APIs). A program will use APIs to do less work and achieve better performance, but relying on them too heavily makes it hard to port those applications to other platforms. Most Windows programs need a certain number of APIs in order to install and operate, and CrossOver Office provides more than 90 percent of the most common APIs along with some special ones that specific popular programs require. So it doesn't mimic Windows by translating processor instructions; all it does is provide the necessary abstraction layer that a program needs to communicate with the operating system. As a result of this approach, performance in CrossOver Office applications is usually very good compared with a virtual machine or emulator. The downside is that it doesn't work with all programs, whereas a virtual machine will use its own copy of Windows and can run any and all Windows programs.

Installation

CrossOver creates Windows-like menus for you

Installing CrossOver Office 3.0.1 is as simple as running a shell script, and that's all that needs to be said about it. Installing programs in CrossOver, however, is a point of interest.

If you're using Xandros Desktop, CrossOver Office is built into it and can automatically detect Windows CDs when they're inserted. Put in a Windows program CD, and CrossOver will automatically start and ask you if you want to install the program. Other distributions aren't so well integrated; you'll have to start the CrossOver Office setup program to get to the installation menu. From there you can select your program from a preset list of known working applications, or you can try to install "unsupported" programs.

For supported programs, CrossOver Office will assume that you have the proper CD in your optical drive and proceed to start its installation program. If it's unsupported, you'll have to navigate to the install program yourself through a standard dialogue. After the installer has started, the rest of the procedure is exactly like it is in Windows with the only exception being that CrossOver doesn't have to restart the computer -- it can simulate a Windows reboot to satisfy the program's needs.

If the installation is successful, icons for the newly installed program are added to your KDE or GNOME menu and to the desktop, if that's what the installer would have done in Windows. Select the menu entry for the newly installed program, and it will start just as it does in Windows.

Program compatibility

There are four levels of compatibility for Windows programs in CrossOver Office: Gold, which means that a program runs just as well in GNU/Linux as it does in Windows; Silver, which runs well enough to be usable but has some minor bugs; Bronze, which installs and runs but has some bugs that prevent you from using some of the program's main functions; and Honorable Mention, which means that someone in the community has tested the program and reported it to install and run, but their results have not yet been verified or tested by CodeWeavers. Non-working programs are listed as Known Not To Work, and untested programs are listed as Untested.

All of this has to do with support and development. Gold programs are supported by CodeWeavers, and they'll address any CrossOver-related bugs that are found. Silver programs are also supported as such, but with the added goal of making these programs Gold in the next release of CrossOver Office. Bronze programs are not supported, but aim to be Silver in the next release. Anything below that level is anyone's guess at this point, but they may very well climb through the ranks in the future.

Microsoft Word XP in CrossOver

CrossOver Office got its name and its initial prestige through seamless installation of Microsoft's Office products, so it's no surprise that most of the MS Office applications have either Silver or Gold compatibility medals. The bad news is, most of the newest programs that you're most likely to want to use are not yet supported. Microsoft Office System 2003 is mostly unsupported, as is the Macromedia MX 2004 suite and the Adobe Creative Suite. If you'd like to see exactly which versions and programs are supported and what level they're currently at, here are CodeWeavers' lists for these manufacturers: Microsoft, Macromedia, Adobe. You can search for other programs and software companies here.

The chances of getting an unsupported program to work with CrossOver Office are usually somewhat slim. It's not unheard of or particularly uncommon, but you can expect problems of varying degrees. I could install the unsupported Corel WordPerfect Office 12, but WordPerfect wouldn't get past the splash screen, even though Quattro Pro and Presentations seemed to work just fine. I didn't do a thorough test of their capabilities, but I could create a simple test file with both of them and use at least some of the standard functions without any trouble.

CodeWeavers discontinued its CrossOver Plugin product and integrated it into their new CrossOver Office product. That means that you can use browser plug-ins that do not yet have native GNU/Linux ports, such as Apple's QuickTime. Actually, that's the only one of which I'm aware. The Windows Media Player plug-in is available on GNU/Linux, as is Adobe's PDF reader, Sun's Java Runtime Environment, and Macromedia's Shockwave Flash Player.

Your influence

WordPerfect is probably the best word processor in the world, and being a more-than-full-time writer it might be worth something to me to be able to run this software on my GNU/Linux computer, assuming I can stomach Corel's license. It doesn't work with CrossOver Office yet; if I want CodeWeavers to give more attention to WordPerfect Office, I have three ways to do it: I can pledge one or more licenses (in other words, promise to pay for these licenses if CodeWeavers will make WordPerfect work in the next release), become an advocate, or buy a CrossOver license and then vote for WordPerfect 12 by using the online application voting system. I can also do all three if I want.

WINE and native application support

CrossOver Office is based on WINE, which is a free software project licensed under the LGPL. WINE does the same basic thing that CrossOver Office does, but it is difficult to configure. I gave it my best effort on FreeBSD and could not even get some basic known-working programs like Internet Explorer 6 to install properly. There are instructions, but despite having followed them I was unable to get WINE working to my satisfaction. WINE also doesn't have an automatic function to kill programs that have locked up or crashed, whereas CrossOver Office does. Since this is a very common occurrence, such a feature is extremely handy to have.

CodeWeavers often contributes money and code back to the WINE project, but certainly there are a lot of enhancements that are kept proprietary. CrossOver Office works out of the box, and it works with more programs; WINE is still technically in the alpha stage, which means that it's under heavy development and not ready for production use. That doesn't mean you can't use it, but it does mean that you're likely to have a hard time getting some productive use out of it right now.

Some people insist that companies like CodeWeavers hurt the development and porting of popular programs to the GNU/Linux platform. The idea is, if you are still buying Windows software to run on GNU/Linux, the software manufacturers will not get the message that you're actually using GNU/Linux and would prefer a native version of the software. So that sale counts as a vote for Windows in some purely imaginary election. I can see why someone would think this, but sales of Windows software has nothing to do with other platforms and the possibility of profitability on them. What matters more to proprietary Windows software companies is GNU/Linux market share, the industries that tend to use (or switch to) GNU/Linux, and customer feedback. There is also the general perception among proprietary vendors that GNU/Linux users don't want to pay for software; this is not true, and is either a purposeful or merely ignorant interpretation of the term free software. On the latter point, there isn't much one can do to properly educate proprietary software PHBs, but it's safe to say that buying and using CrossOver Office is not going to adversely influence Adobe or Macromedia from porting their software to GNU/Linux.

Advocates are people who volunteer to beta test nightly builds of the development edition of CrossOver Office, then provide feedback to the developers. They also participate on the message forums and collaborate with other advocates to try to figure out problems and help each other work around bugs and other issues. If you do your job as an advocate, you get a free CrossOver Office license and your very own CodeWeavers T-shirt, as well as your original goal of getting your chosen application to work on GNU/Linux, eventually. This is undeniably the best beta program in the commercial software industry; you get a real copy of the software (not a time-limited beta with a more restrictive license) and actively get to help add the features that you want to use (rather than beg, scream, and threaten). Lastly, some of the code that is written for CrossOver Office is contributed back to the WINE project, which is the free software basis for CrossOver Office.

Pledges are probably the best way to get CodeWeavers to pay more attention to the application that you're interested in. Unfortunately that means promising to pay them money. If a number of people contribute, however, the total can add up quickly. Some applications, such as IBM Lotus Notes 6.5.1, have garnered over U.S. $8,800 in license pledges, recorded nearly 80 licensee votes, and have more than a dozen advocates helping the developers with testing and feedback. It is now in the Silver category and is likely to move up to Gold in the next edition.

Licensing, versions, support, and pricing

CrossOver Office is under a proprietary license which prohibits users from sharing this software with their friends and family. You also can't decompile or reverse-engineer the software, and many of the other Microsoft-like restrictions that you have come to know and love. But the most troublesome part of the CrossOver license isn't the restrictions; it's the part where they say that they "strongly believe in the Free Software movement." If they are such strong believers, why is this software not under a free software license? Why are there restrictions on what the user can do with the software? Why is the source code not distributed with the binaries? CodeWeavers offers only the source to the free software that they use, but not their own code. A truly strong believer in the free software movement would not sell software under a proprietary license. Hypocrisy is what it is, nothing less -- or perhaps the author of the license meant "open source" instead of "free software." What's the point of escaping Microsoft's malicious licenses if we just have to accept them again from CodeWeavers?

There are two editions of CrossOver Office: Professional and Standard. The Professional edition includes a deployability tool for distributing CrossOver Office plus any installed Windows programs in RPM form, so a sysadmin can easily deploy a standard configuration across many machines. Professional also supports multiple users over a network, although that's a whole licensing debacle in itself, depending on what software you'll be using with it. Support is offered for both versions -- Professional is better, of course -- but I'm not really sure what you'd be able to get out of it. If a program doesn't work with CrossOver, then it doesn't work, and there isn't a lot you can do to remedy that immediately. I suppose the installation support is useful for those on older distributions or with unusual configurations.

Pricing is a flat U.S. $39 for Standard; Professional is U.S. $74.95, but CodeWeavers offers volume and educational discounts. Upgrades are free for six months for Standard, one year for Professional. After that, you'd have to pay for a full license to upgrade to a new version.

Conclusions

CrossOver Office 3.0.1 is valuable software; you don't have to pay a lot for it, and you can get much out of it. Certainly if you're dependent on proprietary Windows programs that don't yet have GNU/Linux equivalents, CrossOver Office is practically a requirement. This is a much better choice than a more expensive virtual machine, which would also increase program load time and decrease application performance.

The license is not free software-friendly, however, and many people in the GNU/Linux community are sensitive to the software licenses that they agree to. There are two kinds of people who switch to GNU/Linux: those who appreciate its superior stability and security, and those who want to use their computer without starting off with an act of betrayal due to the licensing of the operating system. For the sake of those of us who are part of the latter contingent, I urge the people in charge of CrossOver Office licensing to consider a more ethical approach to their policy on software for home desktop use, or at least to make good on their assertion that they are strong supporters of free software.

GNU/Linux users do want to pay for software, but it's the "other" free that holds many of us back from otherwise excellent commercial software such as CrossOver Office.

Purpose Migration tool
Manufacturer CodeWeavers
Architectures x86
License Proprietary, restrictive in all the usual ways (read it here). Most of the software is under the GPL or LGPL, though.
Market Home, small business, and enterprise users migrating to GNU/Linux.
Price (retail) U.S. $39 for Standard, $74.95 for Professional
Previous version CrossOver Office 3.0, CrossOver Plugin
Product website Click here

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.

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