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Linux means Business

Preamble
Linux means Business is a collection of articles that focus on the way businesses can make use of the Linux operating system. For many users the attractiveness of Linux software stems from its price. However for business users the price of the software license is only one factor. In a business environment the total cost of the software is assessed. A corporation will consider developments costs (adapting the software to the company's own specific requirements), support, training etc. Businesses also have a different set of requirements that an application must meet. The software must be compatible with industry standards. If the company needs to issue reports to its clients, they must be in a format their client can understand.

It is sometimes thought that Linux applications cannot challenge Microsoft applications in a commercial setting because the strength of Linux comes from its price. Linux means Business aims to demonstrate that the strength of this operating system arises from other factors such as stability, ease of use, and high quality commercial applications. In addition, the increasing amount of Open Source software is already invaluable to commercial organisations. With full access to source code, companies can easily develop extensions to the software, tailor made to their own specific needs and requirements. Moreover they are not reliant on the good will of a single vendor in order to do business: Linux is about freedom and choice and that is just as important to an organisation as it is to an individual.

Word Processors

Introduction & Definition

Word processing represents one of the most frequent uses of a computer in a business environment. The preparation of documents, brochures, memos and articles is a cornerstone of computing; any operating system must have a wide selection of word processing tools if it is going to appeal to the corporate market. Only a few years ago Linux was found lacking in this department, having a very limited choice of tools to use; with only the historic UNIX tools being available. For example, although LaTeX is a highly professional document preparation system it is aimed at the scientific community, and not at the corporate market. The situation has changed; there are a number of quality office suites that include word processing facilities which are a match for the popular Word.

StarOffice

Firstly, we will take a look at the offering from Sun Corporation. StarOffice is more than just a word processing package. StarOffice 5.2 software is a complete, feature-rich office productivity product that's available free of charge to end users. It includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, calendar, e-mail, graphics program, database and math formula software. Comparable to Microsoft Office, its user interface is intuitive and easy to use. This article will primarily concentrate on the word processing facilities of this package, which Sun call StarOffice Writer.

For a word processor to appeal to the corporate market it must have a wide support for industry standards. Star Office currently supports ODBC3, Active Data Objects (ADO), HTML, and RTF import/export support, IMAP4, XML ICAL, and CDE import/export support. More importantly, a word processor in a corporate setting must have quality import/export filters to read Microsoft's Word documents. The latest version of StarOffice Writer has vastly improved filters to read Word documents. They are not perfect but do make a good job of viewing these documents. In addition StarOffice Writer does support Microsoft Office 2000 features, OLE objects, Visual Basic for applications script preservation and more. Complicated Word documents are well handled by StarOffice Writer.

In a corporate environment a word processing package must be easy to use. Writer features powerful auto functions which simplify the task of creating professional looking documents. A feature which is especially useful for businesses is the business card templates. These let you choose from a variety of designs.

Sun offer offer commercial support for this package with their Enterprise support. This is designed for user groups of over 100. It offers a range of desired features plus valued options to match the support level needed. Sun are also currently developing a support package tailored for small businesses as well. A fee based service is offered by Expertcity.com who offer help, advice and training.

StarOffice is especially designed for organisations that run a number of computer operating systems. It is available for the Windows, Linux and Solaris platforms. An organisation that finds itself running multiple operating systems will benefit from having StarOffice installed; although most word processors have import/export filters, they are never 100% reliable.

WordPerfect

WordPerfect has been around for many years and represents a mature product. Although it was displaced by Word as #1 many years ago, its user base is still considerable.

Like StarOffice, WordPerfect is now shipped as a complete office suite available in standard and deluxe editions. The standard edition includes Corel Linux OS, Adobe Acrobat Reader, WordPerfect 9, Quattro Pro 9, Corel Presentations, CorelCENTRAL, a manual, 30 days email support, Netscape, fonts, clip art. The deluxe edition adds Paradox 9 as well as telephone support.

WordPerfect for Linux requires a powerful workstation to run on. Corel recommend at least 64MB of RAM with 450MB of hard disk space. These hefty requirements are in part due to the reliance made on using Wine (an implementation of the Windows APIs). Although Wine is still considered alpha software, WordPerfect is reasonably stable. Stability of a word processor although important is not critical. WordPerfect 8 does not require the use of this Windows compatibility layer and could represent a solution where only a word processor is needed.

WordPerfect includes all the major word processing facilities a typical office needs such as templates, graphics, charting, tables and macros. Even more importantly, WordPerfect has decent Microsoft file conversation capabilities. As previously mentioned the need to export and import Word (and Excel) files is paramount for many businesses. We've experienced some loss of formatting on complicated documents, but import and export filters are never perfect, even Microsoft themselves have found it difficult to write them for their own products.

The provision of support is also crucial for a business to effectively use a software package. Corel offer per incident support charged at $25.00 or advanced/professional developer services support which costs $150.00 per hour. The latter offers general Linux support (such as configuration of firewalls, servers, web hosting) as well as WordPerfect macros and network installation.

Applix

The third word processor we are going to consider is Applix Words. Like StarOffice Writer and WordPerfect, Applix Words is bundled with complementary office applications. The suite is named Applixware. The suite includes

  • Applixware Words
  • Applixware Spreadsheets
  • Applixware Presents - the presentation application
  • Applixware Data - a powerful and flexible database client that enables easy access to ODBC database information without having to know SQL commands
  • Applixware Mail - fully mail-enables all Applixware products
  • Applixware Builder - using the ELF programming language, lets you create custom applications

Applixware requires a less powerful workstation than WordPerfect. The minimum requirements for Applixware are a P166 processor, 32MB RAM with a full install taking a hefty half a gigabyte of storage. It is available in three languages, English, French and German although at the time of writing the French Edition of Applixware 5.0 is not yet available. Applix are also set to release Chinese and Japanese versions for version 5.0.

Although Applixware 4.41 is available for the Windows platforms, the latest version (5.0) is only available for the Intel Linux platform. Hopefully Applix will provide ports to Alpha, PPC, Solaris and the Windows platforms for future versions.

Applix Words has a wide variety of import and export filters available for conversion from the popular Windows word processors, which are much improved over the previous release. Although the GTK interface helps to improve the appearance of the application, Applix Words does lack a little polish compared with the two previous heavyweights. The latest edition has added one essential feature found in all good word processors, on-the-fly spell checking.

VistaSource Customer Support is there to help you with your day-to-day questions. A toll-free hotline, fax and mail support, and, if needed, on-site support are all available. For small businesses there is also 30 day telephone support included in the license fee.

Applixware 5.0 Standard Office Suite for Linux retails for $99.00 for a single license.

LaTeX

The most obvious distinction between LaTeX and the aforementioned word processors is that LaTeX is Open Source and available without charge. Even if a company uses a commercial heavyweight word processor there is likely to be a use for LaTeX in specific situations which we will explore. Having the source code available also means that the software can be tailored to the specific needs of the company.

LaTeX is a version of Donald Knuth's TeX program which is intended for typesetting especially for technical documents including books, manuals, and theses. It is not a word processor in the traditional sense but rather a document preparation system. LaTeX encourages authors not to worry too much about the appearance of their documents, but to concentrate on getting the right content. If your company writes technical reports, books or prepares slide presentations LaTeX could be the ideal solution, especially if the material produced is of a scientific nature. Although StarOffice Writer, WordPerfect and Applix Words have support for equations, the output produced is vastly inferior to LaTeX's. Equations produced by the heavyweight word processors do not have the professional typeset quality.

LaTeX was first developed back in 1985 and through successive editions has matured into a very stable product. There is support for typesetting in many languages, graphics and a wide variety of fonts. LaTeX requires that the input is typed into a file with any editor with special formatting codes applied. The output is then obtained by running LaTeX on the file. Alternatively you can use a program such as Lyx to prepare your documents. LyX presents the user with the familiar face of a WYSIWYG word processor using LaTeX in the background. There is even a port of Lyx to the popular KDE. LaTeX and Lyx are available for a wide variety of platforms including the popular UNIX variants (including Linux), OS/2 and Windows.

LaTeX does not come with any technical support. However, there is some assistance available from LaTeX (and TeX) enthusiasts via USENET (comp.text.tex) and the TeX Frequently Asked Questions document. A wide variety of books on LaTeX are also available, including the famous "LaTeX: A Document Preparation System" by Leslie Lamport.

Pathetic Writer (PW)

This is an X-based word processor which uses Scheme as an extension language. It is available under the GNU GPL license. Pathetic Writer is part of the Siag Office, an integrated office package that includes a spreadsheet (Siag), an animation program (Egon), a text editor (XedPlus), a file manager (Xfiler) and a Postscript previewer (Gvu).

PW has support for the following formats: PW (native), plain text, HTML, RTF, Word, Postscript and PDF. PW uses the catdoc utility to import text from Microsoft Word documents, although all formatting is lost. Alternatively, formatting can be partially maintained by using the mswordview utility. PW uses ispell to provide spell checking.

PW features an attractive interface which is easy to learn. It has all the basic features a word processor needs. There is no commercial support available and the documentation that is provided is fairly brief.

Maxwell

The final word processor we will examine is Maxwell. Although initially intended to be released on a commercial basis, Maxwell is available under the GNU GPL license. Full source code is available.

Maxwell is recommended as a good WYSIWYG word processor available at no cost. Although Maxwell requires the Motif library to run, this has recently been made available at no charge. A small business may find it worthwhile to evaluate Maxwell, before spending thousands of dollars on a commercial word processor, which are bloated with features which most users never need.

There is a reasonable number of features included with the program including spell checking (using ispell), a basic diagram editor, image support and tables. A limited number of filters are available including RTF although no Word filter, which is an important omission. Unfortunately, Maxwell does not come with any documentation, although the program is fairly simple to use. Maxwell is still under active development and the authors intend to remedy the lack of documentation and provide Word support in the future.

There is no support provided by the authors of this program, which is not surprising under the circumstances. Apart from any assistance that can be found on USENET, the only other form of support comes from the Maxwell mailing list.

Other word processors

Other word processors that merit a mention include Andrew (a graphical user interface system), Cliq and SciTeXt.

Kword (part of the KOffice suite) has great potential. It is billed as a FrameMaker-like word processor application for KOffice. It can be used for desktop publishing and also for "normal" word processing (like writing letters, reports, etc.).

A complete list of word processors running under the Linux platform can be found at linuxlinks.com and the Office section.



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