April 26, 2006

Last look: ApplixWare

Author: Bruce Byfield

Eight years ago, ApplixWare was one of the premier office suites for Unix-like systems. Then Sun Microsystems began promoting StarOffice aggressively, and KOffice and GNOME Office started maturing. Passed to a subsidiary of Applix called VistaSource that later became independent, ApplixWare was repositioned as a combination of a basic office package and a developer's toolkit running from a common main menu. For a while, it was even renamed AnyWare. Now at version 6, ApplixWare is back to its original name, with versions available for AIX, GNU/Linux, and SPARC Solaris, with earlier versions still supported for Windows and FreeBSD. The trial download for GNU/Linux shows ApplixWare's age, but it also shows a trick or two that its newer rivals might learn from.

Much of ApplixWare's design recalls an earlier stage in Unix-like systems. At a time when users are accustomed to automatic dependency resolutions, the tarball for the demo requires a library that it does not include -- libstdc++2.10-dbg, or its equivalent on non-Debian systems. Moreover, although an earlier version experimented with the GTK toolkit, the current one returns to Motif, one of the oldest and least elegant widget sets available. No GNOME or KDE integration is implemented, a fact that is especially noticeable in the lack of hinting or anti-aliasing for fonts. Modern desktop users will also notice the non-standard keybindings for functions such as undo, and non-standard menus that begin with an Applix menu marked with an asterisk and end with a Help menu stranded far from the other top-level items on the right side of the window. You'll find other oddities too, such as a Dismiss button to close dialog windows. Atlhough none of these differences are profound, the absence of any influence from Windows' graphical interfaces -- for better or worse, the modern standard -- may strike users as odd.

The main menu

On the test machine, ApplixWare opens the Main Menu in less than two seconds. The Main Menu is a combination of launcher and general configuration settings. The programs that have icons in the Main Menu suggest the application's combined priorities: they are for Words; Spreadsheets; Data, a database access tool; Macro Editor; and Builder, a tool for building applications integrated with ApplixWare. The other programs that roundoff ApplixWare are relegated to the Applix menu, including Mail, a very basic email browser set by default for internal mail; Graphics; Presents, a slide show program; and HTML Author.

Since ApplixWare is an integrated application, rather than a suite of independent programs, the Main Menu also includes configuration options. According to VistaSource Support, FontTastic, the font manager licensed from Gallium Software, no longer has a graphical interface in ApplixWare, but you can still install fonts by adding a comma-separated list of directories to the catalogue field in /opt/applixware/axdata/fontmetrics/gallium/fs/config. However, ApplixWare includes two dozen fonts from Bitstream, which may be enough to satisfy its target audience of developers.

Choosing Tools -> System Information from the Menu gives a list of ApplixWare and operating system paths and variables. This information is useful for developers creating tools built on ApplixWare, but it is also welcome if you're the type of user who, while having no objection to a graphical interface, still likes to know where configuration choices are stored. Be warned, though, that ApplixWare apparently doesn't recognize any Linux kernel higher than 2.4.18, which is how it records my 2.6.15-1 kernel. In addition, on Debian-derived distributions, you need to run the command ln -s /var/run/cups/printcap /etc/printcap so that ApplixWare can correctly detect any CUPS installed printers.

The office applications

On the test machine, applications opened from the Main Menu in just over a second, giving a total opening time of three to four seconds -- half the time OpenOffice.org takes on the same machine. Words and Spreadsheets export to Microsoft Office formats or very clean HTML, while Graphics and Presents also support standard graphics formats such as JPEG, GIF, and PNG. Imports, by contrast, are non-existent except for graphics formats; otherwise, ApplixWare opens only files in its native format. Each application includes clearly written help, that, although obviously taken directly from hard copy and containing a few outdated references to Applix, are generally useful task-oriented introductions. The applications also share a Save dialog -- or "Directory Displayer," as ApplixWare calls it -- with several features that I'd like to see on modern programs, including a complete directory tree, a history, and the ability to set permissions as a file is saved.

Words, ApplixWare's word processor, is basic but serviceable for short documents. Although lacking such features as master documents or an extensive set of fields, it provides enough options for formatting characters, paragraphs, and tables, or setting up pages with headers and footers and page numbers, for the everyday purposes of most developers. Working on this level, each document is likely to be unique, so it may be unsurprising that Words includes no provision for templates. In much the same way, while Words does have the capacity for styles, the design of Words tends to discourage their use. The Styles dialog, which resembles the Style Catalog in 1.x versions of OpenOffice.org in its need to drill down into sub-dialogs, and the lack of any floating window or key bindings with which to apply styles, are particularly discouraging.

Other formatting features are as troublesome as styles. You edit inserted graphics in the Graphics applications, which makes it difficult to see how they will look in the Words document itself. Similarly, bulleted and numbered lists are designed with the assumption that you won't format until after typing the text. Nor does Words update numbers when items are moved around.

Mindful, perhaps, that developers may be called upon to write white papers, Words' designers have included the ability to add cross-references, indexes, tables of contents with a modest set of options, and change bars for editing and collaborating on documents. Footnotes are not supported directly, but you can set them up using the Glossary feature, which can be thought of as a multiple clipboard or autotext.

Much the same is true of HTML Author, a modified version of Words. Despite the lack of clutter in its HTML output, the fact that its menu does not list tags directly, and the program does not handle frames, makes it suitable for only the simplest documents.

By contrast, Spreadsheets compares more favorably to modern alternatives. Its dialog for formatting numbers in a cell includes a field for setting precision, and its charting subsystem includes more options you can automatically apply than OpenOffice.org's, particularly for pie charts. Printing and sorting options are serviceable, if basic. Spreadsheets even has a few function tools, such as goal seek. It also boasts two tools I'd like to see in more spreadsheets: Function Details, which lists all the functions used in the document, and Cell Statistics, which lists the number formats on each sheet. Both would be invaluable for navigating through complicated spreadsheets.

The largest limitation of Spreadsheets is its functions. By my count, they number 268, about half the number in other spreadsheets. Moreover, a sizable percentage of the functions are unique to Spreadsheets, which causes problems with exporting. Still, basic and intermediate functions such as SUM, VLOOKUP, and MEDIAN are available, together with Help pages that give concrete examples. For light work, Spreadsheets seems more than adequate.

ApplixWare's other office applications are Graphics and Presents. As in OpenOffice.org, the slideshow program is a modified version of the graphics program. Both are suitable for diagrams, or for resizing, rotating, or cropping imported graphics. In fact, with tools to control the movement of objects, such as the ability to choose whether to move selected items a relative or absolute difference, and to constrict movement to one axis, Graphics and Presents surpass more than one graphical application in an office package. Both are supported by an extensive if unimaginative library of clipart, and Presents by a library of 18 slide backgrounds. Presents is particularly economical in its design, opening with a single dialog window to set options, and using two arrow buttons for changing the display of the current slide. The biggest drawbacks are that neither program supports animation, and Presents has no options for sound whatsoever. Still, like the rest of ApplixWare, Graphics and Presents seem adequate for anyone for whom office applications are secondary to their main concerns at work.

The development tools

For VistaSource and long-time users, ApplixWare's development tools are probably more important than the office applications. Just as Base and plugins for different programming languages extend OpenOffice.org, so ApplixWare's development tools provide the means for extending the application's functionality, especially with database programs. If not the most automated programming features ever made, on the whole they seem more current than the office applications.

Data is an interface for working with Informix, Oracle, Sybase, or other ODBC databases, similar to OpenOffice.org's Base. It does not print or generate reports, but aids in editing database tables and structuring queries. Able to work with Binary Large Objects (BLOB) and Real Time SQL, it is versatile, but not particularly user-friendly. It is not very useful, for example, to offer a dialog for building queries that includes panes labeled "Operator" and "Operands." Data, like many database applications, lags behind most office applications in providing a useful graphical interface.

The Applix menu in the Main Menu includes a macro recorder, but for more serious work, ApplixWare includes a Macro Editor that's designed specifically for use with Extended Language Facility (ELF), a proprietary compiled language. Macro Editor includes both a compiler and debugger, as well as a tool for creating graphical interfaces for macros, and a bitmap editor for creating icons. Notable features include syntax completion and error messages placed near the actual errors. Because ApplixWare is an integrated program, completed macros can be run from anywhere within it by pressing the F8 key, or used with external applications designed with Builder.

Builder, an object-oriented rapid application development environment, rounds off ApplixWare's development tools. Builder provides simple but effective graphical interfaces for managing connections to both regular and real time data sources, as well as designing dialogs, debugging, and running completed programs. Although its online help assumes a basic knowledge of programming, relatively little knowledge is needed. It is supported by not only context and online help, but also a dozen sample programs that include step-by-step instructions on how to build them, making it exceptionally easy to learn.

Conclusion

According to the VistaSource Web site, ApplixWare has a large installed base, but its attraction for new users seems uncertain. Granted, the simplicity of its office applications has a certain appeal, yet several free alternatives are similarly uncluttered with advanced features. Nor, despite some innovations, can ApplixWare meet the office needs of more demanding users. Its development tools are more attractive, but they are locked in to a proprietary programming language.

The market conditions under which ApplixWare arose clearly no longer apply. While it should be around for a while yet, ApplixWare seems a product nearing the end of its life cycle. Yet despite its shortcomings from a modern perspective, it's a reminder of a time when interfaces were constructed out of need instead of borrowed unthinkingly, and a graphical interface didn't always mean keeping users unaware of exactly what was going on. Before it disappears altogether, ApplixWare is worth a look, if for this reason alone.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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