One box contains everything needed to use Linux in an office environment, and if you don't have Linux yet, there is even a CD with Corel's LinuxOS distribution.
Manufacturer: Corel Corporation
Price: $159 US
Reviewer: Jon Valesh
Some ideas are so widely held, so reasonable, so attractive, so ... right, that they worm their way into your brain and are just about impossible to fight off. You hear someone talking and, without even needing to think about what they have said, you know they are talking truth. Linux is awesome. True. Microsoft is a monopoly. True. The patent office has gone insane. True. Linux will never be taken seriously by the computer industry as a whole until mainstream office software becomes available. True.
But are these truths really true? In the case of Linux, Microsoft and the patent office, of course they are! What about Linux needing mainstream office software to be accepted by mainstream users? Widely believed? Yes, but...truth, in a warm wash of golden light and trumpeting trumpets? Linux needs applications, that is true. But we need applications that are unique to Linux, applications that will force users through Linux's doors, and not provide them with another excuse for walking past.
There have always been excuses, and there will always be excuses. From “not pretty enough” to “hard to use” to “no commercial support” to, well, I've never heard anyone cite their fear of penguins, but somewhere on this planet, someone is avoiding Linux because the penguin reminds them of Big Bird-inspired nightmares they had when they were four.
Excuses or not, there are some sizable reasons why full-featured office software may be a long time coming from the GNU world. First amongst them is the nature of office-software users. Unlike development tools and Internet servers, word processors and spreadsheets are generally used by non-technical people with non-technical problems. The users don't necessarily have the skills to write their own word processor the way a programmer can write their own compiler. They don't need those skills. The second big reason is the lack of standards. There are no ANSI-standard word processor files, no central body dictates spreadsheet interfaces, no RFC explains existing file formats. In fact, it is just the opposite: the interfaces and file formats have been used as an anti-competitive trump card so many times that even mainstream office applications can have difficulty reading older versions of their own files.
Would-be office software developers can't even go their own way and ignore existing office products, because users need file compatibility and interface familiarity.
So, the options can be reduced to one: commercial software. Here, the requirements shift. You still need file compatibility and an easy interface, but you also need a company that will stand behind their product. Ideally, they will also have a name that draws users. Unlike most GNU software, commercial applications must compete not only for users but also for user money. They must be able to stand feature-to-feature against the best products from the biggest companies. In office software, that means standing against Microsoft. [Although with the recent DoJ ruling, this may change. Someday. Perhaps. —Ed]
Fighting Microsoft in the commercial world means being a company with the money and staff to go one-on-one with the richest and most aggressive corporation in the industry—and not get bought up or buried. Unlike GNU/Linux, a temporary setback isn't just a matter of spending more time coding and waiting for the next opportunity to arrive. It means angry shareholders, lawsuits, layoffs, shattered dreams and all the nasty stuff that happens when people lose their shirts.
You need a company with not only the will but the strength to fight.
Corel has uniquely positioned themselves to fill that need. While most of us sat on the sidelines and grumbled about Microsoft's tactics, Corel decided to play the game, fighting Microsoft head-on using Microsoft's own tricks. Corel and Microsoft have always had similar business strategies. Both grew from humble beginnings, in part, by augmenting their product development resources through purchasing companies and products to combine with their own development efforts—shepherding the best they could build and buy toward commercial success. Corel's office suite, containing mostly bought goods, is no different. Each of the major applications started life as another company's brainchild, but Corel has added several of their own applications and given them all a consistent look and feel.
The key word, when defining either company's strategy, has always been “opportunistic”. However, a few years ago, Corel decided to take the gloves off and face Microsoft on Microsoft's home turf. The size difference is undeniable, the strategy bold. So far, the going has been rough for Corel, but the future looks very bright if Corel's latest moves are right.
And what is their goal? To capture the business desktop. Their strategy? Do it any way they can. Sell an office suite head-to-head with Microsoft Office. Sell a desktop operating system head-to-head with Windows. Make their software multi-platform. Remove barriers to leaving Microsoft, and provide alternatives with a good mix of features and price.
Oh, and sell Linux. Corel saw Linux and realized exactly what each of us did when we encountered the Penguin: here is something truly great and truly threatening to Microsoft. Corel quickly committed themselves to providing Linux versions of their application software, developing their own Linux distribution, even making a try at Linux-based thin-network clients and other Linux-centric products—and they have shown some remarkably good judgment in the process. The Corel LinuxOS distribution is based on Debian GNU/Linux, one of the oldest and most respected distributions around. Their approach to porting their applications was equally practical. Since supporting multiple source code bases or spending the necessary time on a massive inter-OS port would take too long, they spent their time making their applications run under WINE, the GNU free Windows emulator for Linux. The bulk of the Linux-specific software in WordPerfect Office 2000 is actually in the installation program.
WordPerfect Office 2000 Deluxe includes everything most business users need to make a computer useful: a word processor, spreadsheet, database, calendar/PIM, presentation graphics software and even a game. One box contains everything needed to use Linux in an office environment, and if you don't have Linux yet, there is even a CD with Corel's LinuxOS distribution.
At the heart of it all is WordPerfect. Hardly new or unknown in the word processing game, WordPerfect has been around since the beginning, and has steadily improved and expanded since its inception. WordPerfect 9 provides all the features expected in a professional-quality word processor, from page layout to automatic spelling correction to PDF generation; full-featured grammar checking, an “Expert” designed to walk you through the process of creating a document, and more. It may not have every feature imaginable, but it has more than most people will ever use.
Quattro Pro, Paradox and Corel Presentation Graphics round out the office suite. The spreadsheet, Quattro Pro, and database, Paradox, are longtime contenders in the office software world, but are less well-known than WordPerfect. Quattro Pro has all the modern spreadsheet features you could ask for and a consistent and easy-to-use interface. Paradox provides more database functionality than most end users will ever need. When it comes to graphics, few companies have the history and experience of Corel. With that in mind, the features of Corel Presentation Graphics look downright dowdy compared to CorelDraw, but it is designed to serve a different purpose and works well for office meetings and sales presentations.
Railroad Tycoon II from Loki is there to ease you through any frustrating moments you may experience, although some may question the rationale behind including a game in what is otherwise rather straight-laced business software.
Office software inspires user loyalty. After all, if you spend eight hours a day for years working with a program, you are going to understand it pretty well. Little changes can make a big difference to someone who “knows” how a program should work. For all that, the WordPerfect Office interfaces are standardized enough that, unless you are a power user of another suite, you won't be too bothered by the differences you encounter. If you are already using WordPerfect for Windows, you will feel right at home. WordPerfect for Linux looks exactly like, well, WordPerfect. The other applications in the suite are equally unsurprising in their appearance.
Whether you like the interface or not, some of the features are undeniably cute, and some are better than the competition. The WordPerfect grammar and spell checkers seem to ace Microsoft's offerings; the dictionary is larger and the grammar checker gives a little more detail. If you like thesauri, a drop-down on the property bar will keep you occupied, as it automatically finds alternate words while you type. Upon further consideration, that's a feature rife with opportunity for abuse; but, abusable or not, WordPerfect has enough features to keep anyone with something to say busy for a long time.
The other applications in the suite are similar. The features may not be the ones you are used to, but you will rarely leave tasks unfinished for lack of features.
More important to most of us than feature selection is file compatibility. The programs in the WordPerfect suite all have import and export filters for a wide range of competing products, including the latest versions of Word. They even work, most of the time. There can be real, though arbitrary, incompatibilities between programs, which will cause problems from time to time. When importing an Excel spreadsheet to Quattro Pro, the import filter took exception to having a hyphen in the spreadsheet name. This is not a problem in Excel and shouldn't be a problem in Quattro Pro, but it is. The import filter offered to replace the hyphen with an underscore character, and other than the name change, the file read perfectly.
File compatibility is not a two-way street, however. WP can read most other file formats, but most programs are unable to read WordPerfect files. If you need to access your documents using Word, you must save them in Word format. Even then, you may not be able to access the file exactly as it was; differences in available fonts alone can cause otherwise perfect file conversions to look like a madman was in charge of your document layout.
All of the programs share some idiosyncrasies caused by the use of WINE. For example, when saving, some of the dialog boxes refer to your home directory as the D: drive, and the floppy (referred to as the A: drive) is always listed as a destination, but saves to the floppy only when you have a disk mounted. That could cause some confusion, especially for new Linux users.
The first time WordPerfect starts up for a new user, it must do some final setup, like create a directory for user-specific files, generate font information, ask the user if they intend to comply with the license and other little jobs of that nature. Unfortunately, WP does not tell you anything is taking place while it does that. You click, and nothing happens. Or nothing happens right away. Somewhere between 10 and 40 seconds after clicking on the WordPerfect icon, a copyright screen appears to let you know that your computer isn't being eaten by a runaway word processor.
The performance was acceptable on modern systems. I tested on an older P90 that was definitely struggling and would be marginal for word processing, unacceptable for more. Linux is less resource-intensive than most operating systems, and WordPerfect and Quattro Pro running at the same time with moderately sized documents took between 29MB and 34MB of RAM (not counting buffers or cache), depending on the test system. A full installation requires over 450MB of drive space, not counting operating system, games, clip art or additional fonts. If you want to install everything in the box, you will need at least 1GB available.
Corel is aiming at several types of users with WordPerfect Office: people who already use Linux but want the power of a professional office suite; people who are putting together a new computer and don't want to tithe to Microsoft; and existing WordPerfect users who are ready to make the switch to Linux. To support the widest range of existing systems, they include an installation program that recognizes your distribution and installs itself accordingly. Corel also provides the suite in both Red Hat RPM and Debian DEB files, so if you have problems with the installation program, you can perform the installation manually. People buying WordPerfect Office as a complete desktop solution get a general-release version of LinuxOS, identical to what you can download from Corel's web site.
I installed WordPerfect Office on three computers running three different Linux distributions, just to see what how it would handle the differences.
The first was a typical older system, a P90 with 32MB of RAM, a 4X CD-ROM and a 2GB hard drive. This is significantly below the recommended minimum system requirements, and you'll quickly see why when you try to run the office applications. It is the sort of system that Linux is often called upon to resurrect (or at least sustain) for a few more years after Windows bloat has rendered it “obsolete”. Don't expect WordPerfect to help, though—Corel recommends a minimum of a 166—200MHz CPU, and they mean it.
I started by popping the LinuxOS CD into the drive and rebooting, hoping the BIOS was modern enough to boot from the CD-ROM. It was, and after a few moments of earnest disk access, I was rewarded with a subdued low-res color graphic of Stonehenge, a sundial and other oddities, with messages politely telling me to be patient while Linux loaded.
Once the system was sure I remembered why nobody sells 4X CD drives any more, it got on with its job and started asking me questions. Not many questions, however. Agree to the license? Want the full installation? Repartition the hard drive? Yes. Yes. Yes. My name is Jon, and so on. Five questions later, the installation began in earnest, and I, remembering how slow a 90MHz CPU feels in this age of 700MHz laptops, left it to its devices and went off to have dinner.
When I got back, the system was patiently waiting for me to eject any floppy disks that might have snuck into the drive so that it could reboot. A quick click of the “OK” button, and the system automatically ejected the installation CD and started toward its first LinuxOS boot.
Corel has done their best to hide the “Linux” in “LinuxOS”. A graphical boot loader hides as much detail as it can, telling you in the simplest possible terms that, yes, the system is booting, and you should just hang on while it does its job. The system probes your hardware and auto-configures itself based on what it recognizes, which may or may not be what is actually there. Once the auto-configuration process is complete, you are presented with a simple graphical login prompt. You can log in as root or the one regular user account created during the installation process, and, after setting your password, you are ready to go.
This is about as hands-off as you can get in a Linux installation. The system defaulted to 1024 by 768, 16-bit graphics, no network and no sound, which is surprisingly good considering how little I had to do to get it working. I would have preferred to answer some questions about my network card and preset the passwords, but their decision to keep the installation simple and hands-off is probably justified considering the target audience.
KDE is the default user interface, and Corel has kept that as simple as possible, too. No questions are asked about how you want the system to look. There is no choice of having a CD-ROM icon on your desktop. Instead, you are presented with a rather Windows-like desktop with a few icons on the left edge and a bar along the bottom having a few icons on the left and a clock on the right. The configuration isn't totally Windows-like, with four virtual desktop icons and no “Start” button, but any Windows user will be able to figure out that the icon where the “Start” button would be does the Start button's job.
For everything Corel intends LinuxOS to be, it is perhaps a little too simple. Corel seems to have done a good job of removing redundant menu options, which also means that unless you know where to look, you are going to have a harder time finding some features.
After a little bit of random searching, I had a directory listing of the WordPerfect CD on screen. A quick double-click of the setup icon launched the WordPerfect Installer.
I also installed WordPerfect on a new 500MHz Dell Inspiron 7500 Laptop running Mandrake Linux. Installation on this system was actually easier than using LinuxOS, or at least it required less thought. I just popped the CD in, and a few double-clicks later, the installation was on its way.
The third computer to receive WordPerfect was an AMD K6-2 system running Caldera eDesktop 2.4. Unlike the Corel or Mandrake systems, Caldera immediately saw that something interesting was on the WordPerfect CD and started the installation process on its own.
In all three cases, the start of the installation process foretold the greatest problem—nothing happened. Okay, that's not totally fair, the hard disk light started flashing; but in all three cases, there was a significant delay between starting the installation program and any indication it was running. The lack of feedback is frustrating when the installation begins, but an equal lack of feedback when something goes wrong can cause more than frustration. If an error occurs, the installation program closes without explanation.
Installation must be done as root. It starts with the ever-present license agreement query and finishes by asking if you want a full or partial install. Everything else is automatic, although the installation program does give you a chance to panic and abort if you don't like the target directories. The installation program uses the system package tool for the actual installation, which is why the software installs in the normal system directories and not the “local” directories many commercial applications use. After the installation has started, a progress bar and slideshow presentation let you know something is happening.
Using the system package tool is a rather neat solution to providing cross-distribution Linux software, but Corel should work on fault recovery. In two out of the three installations, something happened (me) to cause the Corel installer to die without so much as a grunt of pain. Prematurely closing the installation program caused the worst problem, leaving the installer permanently unable to run on the system. If you get in too much trouble using the installation program, you can always use your system's native package tool to install manually. After I realized the full impact of my fateful installation-stopping mouse click, I was able to install WordPerfect using Debian's apt-get, which Corel uses for the LinuxOS package tool. Manual installation instructions are provided in an HTML README file on the CD.
WordPerfect automatically installs itself in KDE's Applications submenu for all users. After installing, you must either log out or restart KDE in order to see the updated menu. This isn't a problem, because if you do try to run the applications as root, you will be politely warned that it really isn't safe. You can, but it is not recommended.
Installation took from fifteen minutes to two hours depending on the computer, and, uneventful process or not, the software did install on all three systems.
I didn't have very many problems with WordPerfect Office or LinuxOS. The worst one occurred on the Mandrake-based laptop, which received its copy of Mandrake from an older CD. It would open, import and edit files flawlessly, but invariably crashed when called upon to save those files. Not simply crash, but wipe out the source file and any backups that may have been ferreted away. After a great deal of trial and error, I realized that virtually none of the WordPerfect software would run reliably on the laptop, even though most of it ran perfectly. Delving deeper, the problems occurred only for users; when the WordPerfect applications were run by root, they worked fine. This pointed to a problem with the operating system, and upgrading the Mandrake installation seems to have buried the problem.
When it did crash, WordPerfect was less than perfect about having a backup saved. It tries, but it doesn't always succeed.
I noticed only one problem with LinuxOS: the system was unable to establish PPP dialup connections as a user. As root, KPPP dials without difficulty, but normal users get an error message claiming PPP is not installed in the kernel. This is at odds with Corel's positioning of LinuxOS as a desktop operating system for non-technical users.
WordPerfect Office 2000 Deluxe offers a real solution for people who want the power of mainstream office software without contributing to the Bill Gates Retirement Fund. It is an even better solution for people who use Linux and need access to full-featured office software without rebooting. It is at its best in environments where compatibility with other software packages isn't the most important issue. The file import/export capabilities provide a link to other popular office software, but if compatibility is a matter of daily importance, you will find weaknesses. Overall, it is a great set of programs with the promise of becoming even better.