Open Source

Office on Linux: If you can't beat Microsoft, join it

Some Linux-on-the-desktop activists are treating the arrival of CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office as a seminal event in the ongoing struggle to unseat archnemesis Microsoft. But does this new offering live up to the hype?


By Rich Castagna

CrossOver lets you run some Microsoft Office applications on a Linux-based PC, so you can enjoy the full benefits of Windows apps without having to kowtow to the ruffians in Redmond by running a Windows OS. CrossOver stands out among similar products because it doesn't require that you run a copy of Windows in an emulation environment. Right now CrossOver will let you run Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (Office 97 and Office 2000 editions), as well as Lotus Notes; CodeWeavers says additional supported apps such as Outlook will follow. But does CrossOver offer a viable option for the enterprise desktop? I'm not so sure, and here's why.

Almost Office
CrossOver is a neat product and essentially performs as it claims. According to David Jaffe, Microsoft Office product manager, Microsoft hasn't fully evaluated the Windows-on-Linux programs yet, so the company won't comment on support issues. Microsoft hasn't said it won't support Office on a non-Windows platform, but it hasn't said it will either.

From a Linux perspective, a product like CrossOver may overcome the hurdle that the OS has faced in trying to find a place as an end user platform for corporations: Inadequate Linux-based productivity apps. In its initial assaults on the enterprise desktop, the issue was addressed by throwing hundreds—even thousands—of applications into Linux distributions. The idea apparently was that if enough apps were crammed onto the CDs, you were bound to find something that worked for your organization—and, hey, they were free, too.

But free doesn't cut it in the corporate world, where cutting corners with mainline business applications is likely to end up costing more in the long run. And few managers are willing to commit their IT staff to sifting through dozens of word processors, spreadsheets, and so forth. Even the more polished Office wannabes like StarOffice fared poorly, because anything less than 100 percent operational and file compatibility is simply too risky for most businesses.

Support costs may outweigh initial savings
CrossOver effectively overcomes the compatibility complaints by letting you run an actual copy of Office on a Linux machine. To do that, you have to buy the Linux OS, CrossOver, and Microsoft Office. But it just doesn't add up to common sense. Assume your company is going to go with this "solution" for 1,000 desktops; each copy of Linux will cost about $30, and then you'll shell out another $40 for CrossOver (a 1,000-user license costs $4,000). So that's $70 per seat (if you don't buy the site license), and you'll still have to buy Office. Alternatively, you can just buy Windows and Office. Sure, Windows will probably cost about twice as much as the Linux/CrossOver combo, but you won't have to support an operating system plus another platform product and you'll be able to use all Windows applications, not just a select few. And when was the last time you read the fine print on your Office support contract? It's not very likely that Microsoft will provide support for Office when it's being used on a non-Windows operating system.

Considering these alternatives, it seems like a huge price to pay for the satisfaction of thumbing your nose at Microsoft's pricey operating systems. Linux will probably find its place on some corporate desktops eventually, but it'll likely be in niche areas where Linux is specifically required for apps other than the run-of-the-mill office variety.

A Microsoft alternative: An elusive animal
LindowsOS is another Linux OS product that is supposed to provide Windows application compatibility. Actually, it's not really a product yet. Although the company, Lindows.com, has gotten a fair amount of press related to Microsoft's objection to its name, it hasn't yet delivered even a beta that can demonstrate what the company promises: the ability to run Office and other Windows programs on Linux. The company says that version 1.0 of LindowsOS will be available by midyear.

Meanwhile, CodeWeavers should be congratulated for a great PR job. They managed to spread the word far and wide. That, in itself, may be proof that there are plenty of folks out there looking for a Microsoft alternative.

Linux on the enterprise desktop
Would you recommend the Linux/CrossOver combo to your boss as a viable alternative to Windows and Office? Does Linux offer the functionality and stability your organization needs? Join our "Linux in the enterprise" debate and share your opinion.

 

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox