June 2, 2004

EIOffice: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Author: Nicholas Petreley

Evermore Integrated Office is an extremely promising new Java-based office suite that currently runs on both Linux and Windows, with versions slated for Mac and Solaris. EIOffice is a remarkably faithful clone of Microsoft Office, with a twist -- it provides a level of integration unmatched by any office suite on the market. It's not without problems, though, a couple of which take EIOffice out of the running for some organizations.

EIOffice is a commercial package from Evermore Software. It is priced at $149, which includes one year of upgrades and support; you can extend that coverage for $99 every year after. You can also pay $389 for five years of upgrades and support. Various multiple user packs and business discounts are available.

I tested EIOffice on a home-brew workstation based on an Asus motherboard with an AMD Athlon 1800 MHz processor, a generic Nvidia GeForce FX video card, and a Flatron L1720P LCD monitor. I used a Samsung ML1710 laser printer for output.

The good

EIOffice is a welcome addition to the available productivity applications on both Windows and Linux for two big reasons. First, the word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs look and work almost exactly like Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, almost down to the last dialog box and toolbar icon. EIOffice matches all but the sophisticated collaboration features of Microsoft Office. Only power Microsoft Office users might miss a feature here and there; the rest should feel immediately comfortable with EIOffice with little or no retraining.

Second, when it comes to integration between applications, EIOffice is without peer. EIOffice stores in a single binder file as many documents, spreadsheets, and presentations as you care to put into it. This encourages users to group related files in a single binder, but that's not an absolutely necessary approach, because EIOffice lets you integrate related data across different binders as well as different documents within a binder. EIOffice makes it far quicker and easier to share data and objects between documents, spreadsheets, and presentations than any other office suite I've tried, including Microsoft Office, OpenOffice/StarOffice, and KOffice.

For example, it is ridiculously simple to copy a cell from a spreadsheet, such as a dollar amount, and link it into the middle of a sentence in a text document. If you change the value in the spreadsheet, the dollar amount in the sentence will reflect the change immediately. If you then cut the cell from the spreadsheet and paste it into another spreadsheet, the link follows your cut and paste operation and the document continues to point to the correct value. It also maintains the correct link when you insert or delete rows or columns.

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The persistence of links between EIOffice applications is not just better than OpenOffice, it is far more flexible and robust than what you get with Microsoft Office. This brings a new level of power to both Linux and Windows users.
This kind of persistence is nonexistent in some suites, and problematic at best for Microsoft Office. Microsoft Office is hampered by sluggish and resource-intensive COM/OLE for linking, and office users may even have to resort to Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programming for some links.

Even seemingly mundane types of links can prove to be valuable time-savers. Linking makes it easy to keep a white paper and corresponding slide presentation synchronized, for instance. One might link section headings to slide titles and sub-headings to slide bullet items. The slides will automatically reflect any corrections or changes you make to the section headings and sub-headings.

EIOffice didn't balk at importing a very large and reasonably complex Microsoft Word document, nor did it have a problem saving that document as a PDF file. Although it did not import Microsoft Office documents perfectly, it usually did a better job than OpenOffice.

EIOffice uses Java as its macro language. I could not find useful documentation for writing macros and custom programs in EIOffice. I had to record macros and look at the code that was automatically generated in order to discover the built-in functions of EIOffice that you can call from Java programs.

The bad

EIOffice is not without flaws, however, I managed to get it working on Debian (unstable branch), Gentoo, Fedora Core 1, and Fedora Core 2, but not without substantial effort on my part. The installation ran smoothly on Fedora Core 1, but it did not finish properly on any other distribution I tried. I had to copy files manually from Fedora Core 1 to my Debian and Gentoo installations to get it working on those distributions. Obviously, if you don't have a Fedora or Red Hat installation handy, you can't solve the problem this way, but a sophisticated Linux user can figure out how to extract and install all the files without the installation program.

The installation program completed successfully on Fedora Core 2, but the application did not run at first. Fedora Core 2 users will need to install a C++ backwards compatibility library to get it working. (One way to fix the problem is to issue the command yum install compat-libstdc++). I found it amusing that EIOffice told me I would have to reboot the system after installation before I could use the software. Perhaps this step is provided to maintain a consistent experience between the Windows and Linux versions, but no reboot was necessary under Linux.

The worst problem I had with EIOffice was a perplexing one of speed. Overall, EIOffice is very responsive, so much so that one would not guess it is a Java-based program. It was easy to navigate and edit a 300-page document filled with graphical objects and text with no perceptible delay.

I'm a very fast typist, however, and I found that the word processor occasionally dropped characters as I typed. This could be a show-stopper for some people, but I could not reproduce the behavior consistently enough to give EIOffice a thumbs down for all. Businesses thinking about investing in EIOffice for many users may want to test EIOffice on their slowest machines with their fastest typists before making a decision to migrate the entire company.

EIOffice was very robust in other ways. I've thrown a lot of types of work at EIOffice and it hasn't so much as hiccuped let alone crash. That's not to say there aren't a few non-fatal bugs. EIOffice sometimes forgets to switch cursor types from a text insertion cursor to a pointer, for example. Some other bugs were annoying, but none were show-stoppers.

The ugly

On the other hand, the fact that it occasionally drops characters may be the explanation as to why Evermore Software has not enabled font antialiasing or other font smoothing techniques available in Java. These features can slow down performance significantly. Without them, the fonts in EIOffice look anywhere from aesthetically challenged to downright homely. The problem is worse on an LCD monitor than on a CRT, but let's face it, it's the twenty-first century now and there's no excuse for such ugly font rendering, whether it's a Java problem or an EIOffice problem. Fortunately, documents print much better than they appear on screen, and the fonts are smoothed when giving presentations.

The bottom line

Although EIOffice is specifically designed to be a replacement for Microsoft Office, Linux users are more likely to compare EIOffice to OpenOffice. Since EIOffice emulates Microsoft Office sans a few features here and there, wherever Microsoft Office is more feature-rich than OpenOffice, EIOffice is likely to be equally more feature-rich than OpenOffice. And wherever Microsoft Office is superior to OpenOffice in design, EIOffice is also superior.

The most noticeable area where EIOffice whips OpenOffice is in the creation and management of presentations. OpenOffice Impress is certainly "good enough," but EIOffice (and Powerpoint) are clearly more usable and feature-rich. For example, EIOffice lets you customize your presentation in a much more granular way than OpenOffice. You can assign various animations and actions to individual bullet points and individual actions, such as a mouse click or a mouseover (when the mouse pointer hovers over the bullet item). While the presentation text in EIOffice is not antialiased or otherwise smoothed when editing a presentation, it is smoothed nicely when you run the finished presentation. Oddly enough, in spite of the fact that EIOffice is more feature-compatible with Microsoft Powerpoint, OpenOffice frequently imported Microsoft Powerpoint files better than EIOffice.

The EIOffice word processor is clearly superior to OpenOffice Writer in terms of integration with the other applications, and it has a user interface usability edge over OpenOffice. On the other hand, OpenOffice Writer text looks a lot better because the fonts are antialiased, and OpenOffice Writer never fell behind when I typed quickly.

The EIOffice spreadsheet is roughly equal to OpenOffice Calc, although once again the lack of antialiased fonts in EIOffice can be annoying.

EIOffice is peerless when it comes to application integration, so if the cleanest possible approach to integration is what drives your purchasing decision, EIOffice is not the best choice, it is the only choice.

OpenOffice is still plenty good enough for most users. Its antialiased text looks better, and the fact that it is free makes it difficult to beat on an economic level. But EIOffice is clearly the top choice for those who want the smoothest transition away from Microsoft Office. It requires little or no retraining, is almost as feature-rich, and is priced well within the reach of most organizations.

Nicholas Petreley is a consultant and writer in Kansas City, Mo.

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