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SolutionBase: Gnumeric and KSpread offer spreadsheet application alternatives for Linux users

In the word of general office spreadsheet needs, Microsoft Excel and OpenOffice.org Calc are probably considered the big guns, but the possibilities don't end with those two tools -- at least not when you're using Linux. Two alternative spreadsheet applications in particular stand out: a piece of the KOffice suite of tools called KSpread; and Gnumeric, the brainchild of GNOME front-man Miguel de Icaza. Jack Wallen takes cursory looks at both of these tools.

When considering spreadsheet applications, Microsoft Excel is probably the first that comes to mind; for the Linux world, the first would be OpenOffice.org Calc. These two are the big guns in the word of general office spreadsheet needs, but the possibilities don't end with those two tools — at least not when you're using Linux.

Two alternative spreadsheet applications in particular stand out. One alternative is a piece of the KOffice suite of tools called KSpread. The second tool, Gnumeric, is the brainchild of GNOME front-man Miguel de Icaza. Gnumeric stands alone as one of the only non-suite spreadsheet tool available and it does so quite admirably.

We're going to take cursory looks at both of these tools to show that they are both viable solutions to a very common problem: simple spreadsheet needs without heavy overhead and complexity.

Author's note

As a frame of reference, let's examine our environment. I will be running an older, highly configured installation of Fedora (FC6). The processor is an AMD 64 bit (running in 32 bit mode), with a 1 GB of RAM. This test machine does not warrant using tools with smaller requirements, but I would be remiss in saying that both applications excel in bringing new life to older machines. In fact, Gnumeric was created a few years ago when machines were not nearly as powerful as they are now; over the years, Gnumeric's requirements have changed very little.

It doesn't matter what desktop you're using with either tool. Even if not running KDE, you can still run KOffice. You will, however, need to have KDE installed before you can install KOffice. My desktop of choice is Enlightenment.

Installing your options

In order to install KSpread, you'll have to install the entire KOffice suite (KDE must also be installed). To do so, visit the KOffice Project download page. If you are using an RPM-based distribution, simply download the RPM package from one of the many mirrors and issue the command rpm -ivh koffice-1.6.3.rpm (1.6.3 is the latest stable version as of this writing.)

You could also run either yum install koffice or apt-get install koffice to install the software. If you're using a different type of distribution, go to the main download page and download the file that suits your system.

To install Gnumeric, you can either issue the command yum install gnumeric or apt-get install gnumeric to install the software; or, go to the Gnumeric download page, download the version you require, and follow the included installation instructions.

The requirements for the latest stable version of Gnumeric are:

  • glib >= 2.6.4
  • gtk+ >- 2.6.0
  • pango >= 1.8.1
  • libgnomeprint >= 2.8.2
  • libgsf >= 1.13.2
  • Goffice >= 0.2.1 and < 0.3.0
  • libglade >= 2.3.6
  • intltool >= 0.29.0
  • gnome-xml >= 2.4.12
  • libart >= 2.3.11

The following are optional:

  • libgnome >= 2.0.0
  • libgnomeui >= 2.0.0
  • libbonobo >= 2.2.0
  • libbonoboui >= 2.2.0
  • python >= 2.0
  • pygtk >= 1.99.10
  • gda >= 1.0.1
  • libgnomedb >= 1.0.1

Fortunately, both the yum and the apt-get installation methods will take care of the above dependencies.

Once these tools are installed, running each is either a matter of finding the correct menu entry. As shown in Figure A, both Gnumeric and KSpread can be found in the GNOME Office menu.

Figure A

GNOME's menu hierarchy for Gnumeric.

Similarly, both applications are found in KDE's Office menu, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

KDE's menu hierarchy for KSpread.

Both applications can also be started by issuing their executable commands. Open up a terminal window and issue gnumeric to start Gnumeric, or kspread to start KSpread.

Now that you have them both up and running, let's take a peek around.

KSpread

KSpread is part of the KOffice suite. This suite of tools is pretty standard fare for Office, and KSpread doesn't fall short. When you first start KSpread, you'll be greeted by a document wizard, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

You can choose from different types of spreadsheet templates.

The wizard templates are fairly simple, for the most part. From the General category, you can choose either a Blank Worksheet or a Student ID. From the Business category, you can choose from the following:

  • Balance Sheet
  • Expense Report
  • Invoice
  • Packing Slip
  • Price Quotation

From the Home and Family category, you can choose from the following:

  • BMI Category
  • Credit Card Tracker
  • Menu Plan
  • Vacation Checklist

Of course, you can also create your own templates (more on that later), should the above lists fall short.

You'll probably be selecting a Blank Worksheet from the General category. Once you select Use This Template, a familiar window will open, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

The KSpread UI is standard fare.

As you will notice, KSpread looks like every other spreadsheet application; with it, you can do what every other spreadsheet application can do. You can use functions (from ABS to ZERO_COUPON), or insert items such as objects, charts, calendars, links, and pictures. You can check spelling or protect sheets and documents; you can even edit scripts. Wait; that's not standard fare, is it?

KSpread scripting serves to extend the functionality of KSpread. Think of scripting as adding extensions to Firefox. The scripting function supports scripts written in Python, Ruby, or KDE JavaScript. Let's take a look at how the Script Editor works.

Start the Script Editor from the Tools menu; Figure E shows the full hierarchy.

Figure E

The Script Manager and Script Editor are two different tools.

Once the Script Editor is open, you'll see the screen shown in Figure F. You'll notice the Samples menu; that's where we're going.

Figure F

From this window, you can write, edit, compile, and run your scripts.

Let's open up a sample script. Figure G shows the menu hierarchy to open up the Set Text script.

Figure G

The set text script is a very basic script, but shows how the scripting tool works.

Once the Set Text script is open, you can see how simple the language is. You can modify the script however you like it. Once you have the script modified, select Compile | Execute from the Script menu. Note that the script has done its job, as shown in Figure H.

Figure H

This particular script, as-is, isn't terribly useful, but the script can easily be modified (as can many of the samples).

The Script Edit function is one of the more unique aspects of KSpread. Outside of that, as I've said, it's fairly standard (but reliable).

Gnumeric

Let's move on to another alternative: Gnumeric. As you can see in Figure I, Gnumeric — much like KSpread — follows standard operating procedure for spreadsheet applications. You won't find much of the unexpected in this application. Gnumeric does go a few steps further than KSpread; its ability to meet the needs of a more corporate or mathematical environment show how it stands up to the larger competition.

Figure I

The Gnumeric team has done an outstanding job creating a user-friendly UI.

Included in the functionality of Gnumeric are such tools as:

  • Plugins
  • Auto Correct
  • Auto Save
  • Goal Seek
  • Solver
  • Scenarios
  • Simulation
  • Statistical Analysis

As shown in Figure J, the Statistical Analysis tools are in-depth.

Figure J

You're sure to find the tools you need within Gnumeric.

I've grown to love Gnumeric's text import tool. Often, I've had clients hand me a text file filled with client information wanting it in spreadsheet format. With Gnumeric, that job is only a matter of opening the Data menu and selecting Import Text File from the Get External Data entry. I have found this function to almost always work flawlessly.

When importing a text file, you have a few options after selecting the text file. In Figure K, you can see the available options; the defaults often worked fine for me.

Figure K

Names have been blurred to protect the innocent.

After selecting your options, press the Forward button to continue. The next step, as illustrated in Figure L, is to select the type of separators and text indicators.

Figure L

As you select an option, the preview adjusts in real time.

The final step is formatting; you can format data ranging from Numbers to Custom formatting. You can also exclude specific columns from import.

One you have completed your formatting, select Finish and your data will be imported into spreadsheet form.

Gnumeric, from my experience, is one of the easiest, most reliable spreadsheet applications available, but what's really surprising is its speed. With Gnumeric, you won't find the sluggishness of Excel or OpenOffice.org Calc when using larger spreadsheets. As for migration from one tool to the next, the Gnumeric team has made sure that the learning curve is as low as possible. Your departments probably won't notice the switch from the Microsoft equivalent to Gnumeric, but your accounting department certainly will.

Final thoughts

Years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a reliable, cost-effective, less resource-hungry alternative to the major players in the spreadsheet arena; that is no longer the case. With both KSpread and Gnumeric in the field, the game has drastically changed, but who would benefit most from which application?

Honestly, I wouldn't insert KSpread into a larger business. KSpread is an outstanding application for students and small shops needing basic spreadsheet abilities, but for larger companies or for scientific needs, Gnumeric is the way to go.

As for Import or Export abilities and Save or Save As functionality, both can save in just about any format available. Gnumeric, however, is far more adept at opening XLS documents. Although KSpread was able to eventually open a very complex spreadsheet created in Excel, the formatting of the spreadsheet was off. Gnumeric, on the other hand, handled the complexity of the Excel spreadsheet perfectly.

So if you are a large company looking for an alternative and need to interoperate with MS products, go with Gnumeric. If you are a smaller company and have little need to interoperate, go with either product.

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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