July 31, 2009

If You Pay for a Linux Word Processor, Is It Really Worth the Price?

Are you interested in a word processing environment that's more or less the same across multiple PC desktop and mobile platforms--a Linux notebook and a Windows CE device, let's say, or a Macintosh PC, a Windows XP netbook, and an Android phone? How about a word processor that comes with abundant tech support, or one that handles complicated documents relatively easily? If any of these capabilities cries out to you, you might be better off with a commercial product--the kind you pay for--instead of one of many free open source packages also aimed at countering the Microsoft Word stranglehold.

Typically, the commercial word processor available for Linux these days are components in crossplatform office suites that cost somewhere between one-quarter and one-half of the $150 you might spent for a license to the Home and Student edition of Microsoft Office 2007. The investment in a commercial word processor for Linux might be worth it to you--or not--depending on your own particular software needs. For those who want to test the waters first, free trial editions are often available.

To be sure, many efforts at commercial word processors for Linux have faded away with the rise in popularity of free software like OpenOffice.org's Write and AbiWord.

To cite one of the most glaring examples, WordPerfect for Linux, first launched in 1996, hasn't seen the light of day since Corel pulled the plug on it back in 2005 or so. Over the same time frame, however, many free open source word processors have either fallen out of software maintenance or disappeared entirely.

Meanwhile, industry heavy-hitters Sun Microsystems, Novell, and IBM Lotus keep building on their Linux heritages with new releases of distinctive commercial word processors. So, too, does, ThinkFree, an innovative California-based start-up that's just added ThinkFree Mobile Netbook to its growing line-up of crossplatform suites. Haansoft, a South Korean distributor of Linux OS and word processing software, just so happens to hold a majority interest in ThinkFree.

At the same time, German-based SoftMaker continues to perfect its commercial crossplatform suite for Linux, Windows, and multiple mobile platforms, which is available for English, German, and other human languages. SoftMaker Office 2008 also affords extensive word processing support for academic and scientific research papers and other lengthy docs.

In this part of a new series on commercial word processors for Linux, we'll explore Sun's StarWrite, in addition to ThinkFree Write and SoftMaker's TextMaker.

Sun's StarWrite

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

soffice9.jpgAs we discussed a couple of weeks ago, Sun's free OpenOffice org open source office suite comes with a word processing package known simply as Write. StarOffice, a commercial software suite from the same company, includes StarWrite. StarWrite uses the same code base as Write, and most of the capabilities in Write and StarWrite are identical.

But there are also some differences between Sun's open source and commercial offerings, which might or might not matter to you. At a price of $50 per user, StarOffice wraps in a number of software features not bundled with OpenOffice, eliminating the hassles of seeking out these capabilities online and performing separate downloads of those you want (and are able to find).

The componentry exclusive to StarOffice includes templates and sample documents; a large clip art collection; the StarOffice Configuration Manager; and a PDF report extension. In addition, on the word processing side, StarOffice is more adept--straight out of the box--at handling old word processors' file formats. Sun's commercial package contains file import filters for legacy word processors such as DisplayWrite, WordStar, and XyWrite.

Also unlike OpenOffice, StarOffice comes with tech support for three incidents within 60 days, along with indemnification against patent-infringement and other intellectual property (IP) litigation, two benefits aimed mainly at increasing the acceptability of the software in large businesses and other enterprises. Also to help appease corporate IT managers, StarOffice undergoes a more rigorous quality assurance (QA) process than OpenOffice.org's community-based testing.

On the other hand, though, OpenOffice supports more than 40 human languages, whereas StarOffice supports a mere dozen of them.

OpenOffice and StarOffice are both relatively large in terms of memory and hard drive footprint. Despite that fact, though, OpenOffice is being bundled with increasing numbers of netbooks these days.

ThinkFree Write

Runs on Linux , Windows, and Mac OS X desktops and notebooks; Linux, Windows, and Mac ESD netbooks; MIDs; Android phones; and standard Web browsers.

thinkfree-2.pngThinkFree produces its office suite in myriad editions, including ThinkFree Office, the Web browser-based, Java-enabled ThinkFree Online, and three editions of ThinkFree Mobile, for Android, MIDs, and netbooks.

Tailored to smooth document sharing and collaboration across both ThinkFree and Microsoft Office platforms, ThinkFree Write offers niceties that include table support; headers and footers; section-based editing; drop caps; and hyperlinking, for instance.

Yet although all of the suites support Write (in addition to ThinkFree's Calc spreadsheet and Show presentation package), each edition is designed for a different environment. The new Mobile Netbook product, for instance, adds a Document Viewer geared to displaying office documents while on the run in a netbook-sized display. Netbook users can transition into edit mode when they need to create documents.

The netbook suite also incorporates Manager, a piece of software for synchronizing documents with larger PCs operating ThinkFree Online. For its part, ThinkFree Online has taken some drubbing for its current failure to let you open more than one file at a time per application.

In any case, like ThinkFree Online (but unlike ThinkFree Office), the new Mobile Netbook suite also allows for online storage. Regularly priced at $39.95, the netbook suite is available for a limited time for only $24.95.. If you buy the suite at the introductory price, you get an additional 1GB of online storage, bringing the total to 2GB. ThinkFree is also providing unlimited phone support.

The pioneering start-up has also broken new ground lately by entering into a pact with Phoenix Systems and by rolling out a new 3D interface specific to the MID platform. Under the deal with Phoenix, ThinkFree Office is being integrated with HyperSpace, a fast-boot Linux environment from Phoenix, for use by netbook makers.

Haansoft, ThinkFree's parent company, is a long-time producer of software specifically geared to supporting Hangul, an alphabet unique to Korea. Yet ThinkFree's products are available in multiple other human languages, including English, of course.

SoftMaker's TextMaker

Runs on Windows, Linux, Windows CE, and Pocket PCs

textmaker.pngAside from the TextMaker word processor, SoftMaker's latest office suite, Office 2008, also incorporates the PlanMaker spreadsheet, a presentation package named Presentations, and--for 32-bit Windows only--BasicMaker, a Microsoft VBA-like programming environment.

Along similar lines to ThinkFree's suite, SoftMaker's products are meant to offer stronger compatibility with MS Office while consuming less computer real estate than OpenOffice. TextMaker 2008 can read and write Microsofice Office file formats, in addition to Open Document Format (ODF), Rich Text Format (RTF), and Hypertext Mark-Up Language (HTML).

SoftMaker Office, however, has always been particularly tailored to academic environments, and the 2008 suite contains many features supporting collaboration on long and complex documents. You can "balloon comments," for example, much as you would in Word 2003. You can also track changes to your documents.

Other high-end capabilities of TextMaker include a multi-language spellchecker; a full-fledged outliner; footnotes and endnotes; PDF export and printing; tables with built-in calculations; and graphics that can be anchored to paragraphs.

The Linux and Windows editions of SoftMaker Office are each priced at US $79 95. But in a special bundle, you can buy both editions for US $99.95 Academic discounts are available, too.

SoftMaker's support for Windows CE and Pocket PCs might seem rather outmoded, given the advent of newer mobile platforms. But SoftMaker has always shown itself amenable to adapting to changing circumstances. While adding BasicMaker in the 2008 edition, for example, SoftMaker dropped its previous support for BSD Unix.

Around the Corner

Next week, we'll drill down into the latest commercial word processors from Novell and IBM, along with the nascent word processing capabilities in Moblin, another emerging Linux platform for netbooks.

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