The Open Source

SAN MATEO (06/12/2000) - I bought a copy of VistaSource Inc.'s Applixware Office 5.0 for Linux this weekend (www.vistasource.com). It cost me US$99. Not counting games, it's only the second bit of software I can remember paying for in years. The other was Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect 8 for Linux. Everything else I have on hand I've either downloaded from the Internet or received as a free review copy.

I could have requested a free review copy of Applixware Office 5.0, but I forked over my own cash because I didn't want to feel obligated to write about it if I didn't like the improvements enough to spend the time testing it. (Now that I am writing about it, I suppose I should try to get my money back.

Unfortunately the store where I bought Applixware doesn't seem to have a "customer dissatisfaction or your money back" guarantee.)Until recently, the seemingly limitless supply of free software was a perk that members of the computer trade press shared with few others. Now it seems every category of software has been invaded by free software. You need productivity applications for Linux? There are free, open-source alternatives such as Gnome Office and KOffice. Don't forget the free closed-source offering, Star Office 5.1.

The question is, "Does Applixware Office 5.0 offer unique value to make it worth the price?" Absolutely. But to fully appreciate how Applixware Office differs from the competition, you have to take the time to delve beneath the surface.

This suite is far more than it appears to be. That's a good thing, because it appears to be quite lame. But Applixware Office usually only falls short when compared according to the competition's rules. By those rules, Applixware Office 5.0 is a feature-rich suite of applications that occasionally seems to be the victim of a brain-dead approach to usability. It often lacks the obvious shortcuts to common operations such as getting a document's word count. And don't get me started on the clue-free user interface for the e-mail application.

By its own rules, however, Applixware Office 5.0 stacks up quite differently.

The key to understanding the value of Applixware is to think of Applixware Office not as a suite of limited applications, but as a nearly limitless repository of features that has been preassembled into a few sample applications.

The glue that melds the Applixware Office features together into coherent applications is an object-oriented macro programming language called ELF (Extension Language Facility). The entire Applixware Office user interface has been built using the ELF macro language (www.applixware.org).

Armed with ELF, the powerful application development tools that come with the suite, and some programming skills, you can make Applixware Office do just about anything imaginable. With a little ambition, it is a simple matter to add all the usability features that are missing. With a moderate amount of ambition, you could tailor Applixware to meet precisely the needs of your business. And with a lot of ambition, you could conceivably build entirely new applications that hardly resemble the ones you get in the box.

Don't make the mistake of regarding ELF as the equivalent of Visual Basic (VB) script in Microsoft Office. VB script is a pathetic excuse for a language that was bolted onto Office as an afterthought. Throw in a little OLE automation and what you end up with is a massive, unstable, difficult to maintain custom application that can barely get out of its own way.

In sharp contrast, ELF wasn't tacked onto Applixware. Applixware Office is ELF, combined with a library of productivity application functions. On the slim chance you need more features than you get with the suite, you can always add your own using another language such as C or C++.

So the bottom line is this: If all you want is basic productivity applications, then what you're really paying for is 30 days of technical support. If you don't need the support, you can turn to a variety of free applications for the features you need.

But if you want a powerful development environment with a repository of all the features you'd expect in an integrated productivity application suite, I know of no equal to Applixware Office 5.0 at any price.

Nicholas Petreley is the founding editor of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com) and works with Linux Standard Base. Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com.

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