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The StartX Files: Between the Sheets Roundup - page 2

The Desktop Application Balancing Act

  • March 1, 2002
  • By Brian Proffitt

abs 0.907

Available from: http://www.ping.be/bertin/abs.shtml
Version reviewed: 0.907 for Linux/Intel
Version currently available: 0.908 for Linux/Intel (Source Only)
License: GNU General Public License
Cost: Free

The first thing you will say to yourself after starting abs is "Oh. Motif." since that is what the interface appears to be built upon. Actually, its based on Xaw, which has a very Motif-like look. This was certainly intentional, since Bertin first developed abs in Motif for AIX back in 1996.

Although Xaw/Motif are aesthetically not my favorite widget kits, the overall look of abs was satisfactory. I did notice that there were some mouse tracking delays within the dialog boxes under KDE, which did not happen under GNOME. These delays were slightly more than negligible, so for better performance I would recommend working with this under GNOME, if you are inclined to use a desktop environment.

In terms of functionality, all of the standard spreadsheet accouterments were in place: input line, function bar, row and column controls... pretty much everything you need to manipulate your data in the cells and sheets. The only thing missing that I would have liked to have seen was a pop-up context menu for the row and column control buttons. In abs, you have to select the row or column then go all the way up to the main menus to implement a command like formatting. Picky, but time-consuming after a while.

Printing is not a difficult thing to master, as abs workbooks are converted to XFig format and then sent to the printer in that format. You need to make sure you have fig2dev if you want to send information to the printer in PostScript format.

abs does a good job letting you enter functions into individual cells without having to type a thing, if you are willing. Just click on the Function tool, pick a function, and then choose the cells you want to be entered in the function to have their cell addresses automatically entered. The only thing you need enter manually are parentheses and brackets, if you need them. There are 144 functions included, so there's no shortage of calculations to implement.

Chart creation is a wee bit convoluted, depending on how you start it. If you have a range of cells selected, then selecting Chart|Create will immediately slap up an XY chart, which can be moved and resized around the sheet with ease. Of course, this is all well and good unless you wanted another kind of chart. In this case, or if you don't have a range selected, you will have to use the Chart|Create menu commands and then Chart|Change Chart to pick a range and/or chart type. You can select from XY, pie, and bar charts, using a dialog box that is very reminiscent of Excel's chart tool. Again, this quirk is not a deal-breaker, just a little quirk that you will have to adapt to.

Speaking of Excel, abs does provide a certain kind of compatibility with Excel, using a unique tool patterned directly after Visual Basic: the ABVisual scripting language.

Bertin's approach to sharing Excel and abs files is rather interesting. The contents of every abs file, he explained, is an ABVisual script that is faithfully recreated by abs when the spreadsheet file is opened in abs.

"If you open in an editor the file saved by abs," Bertin said, "you will find something like:

Sub main() Cells(1,1).formula = "Welcome to the abs 
spreadsheet" Cells(2,1)Formula = "=10+10" Cells(2,1).font.size 
= 18 ... End sub

"When you open this file inside abs," he continued, "abs will execute the macro called main to recreate the spreadsheet. Inside Excel, you just have to import the file inside Visual Basic, run the main routine and the result is exactly the same."

To reverse the process and pull Excel data into abs, Bertin has written a simple Excel macro to save the content of the workbook in the abs file/script format.

Granted, this is a bit cumbersome, but it works. I was able to open files of either type with impunity in either application. Some of the fancier formatted Excel workbooks looked a bit weird in abs, but this was mostly due to font-handling differences between Windows and X.

As far as other spreadsheet formats are concerned, users might be a bit out of luck for now, as Bertin has concentrated his efforts on just Excel compatibility for now.

The ABVisual scripting language is one of the big strengths of abs, since it does far more than provide Excel compatibility. According to Bertin, "[ABVisual scripts] can be compiled as stand-alone applications and you can easily add your own classes to the object model."

Calc, StarOffice 6.0 Beta

Available from: http://www.sun.com/staroffice/
Version reviewed: StarOffice 6.0 Beta, Calc component
Version currently available: StarOffice 5.2, Calc component (Beta program ended Dec. 31, 2001)
License: Proprietary
Cost: Free

StarOffice 6.0 beta is based directly on OpenOffice and there hasn't been very much documented diversion between the two components' development paths. The only thing I could find in the release notes was the OpenOffice Calc now has the Launch() function working in version 641b. Presumably, this is different from the StarOffice version, which mirrors a slightly earlier version of OpenOffice.

There are, naturally, other undocumented differences. The fonts on the StarOffice Calc components (menus, title bars, dialog boxes) are non-aliased, no matter what you do with the spadmin tool. Curiously, font handling within StarOffice Calc looks a smidge better than within OpenOffice. But that kerning problem I harped on last week is still readily apparent.

Feature for feature, Calc in StarOffice is identical to Calc in OpenOffice, as you would expect at this early point in their digression. SO Calc is faster to get started: 15 seconds vs. OO Calc's 23 seconds on initial startup, and 6 seconds for SO Calc vs. 9 seconds for OO Calc on subsequent starts. I could not see an appreciable difference in the speeds of the two applications once they were running.

So what do you get with StarOffice's version that you might not get with its OpenOffice counterpart? For now, Calc in StarOffice has a little more polished performance. Once things get settled in the final version of StarOffice 6.0, I expect this to be even more readily apparent. Whether this will be a long-term trend remains to be seen, since one would expect OpenOffice to pull away from StarOffice since the latter will presumably be locked into a more rigid release schedule than the former. Of course, this is just a guess on my part: these two products may leapfrog each other on major releases in perpetuity for all I know.

If you want to get a hold of Calc for StarOffice 6.0, will need to wait for a bit. The beta program ended on the last day of 2001 and there is no specific word on the exact date of release for StarOffice 6.0, though Sun is expecting it to ship in early 2002.

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