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The StartX Files: Between the Sheets Roundup - page 6

The Desktop Application Balancing Act

  • March 1, 2002
  • By Brian Proffitt

Spreadsheets, Anyware Office

Available from: http://www.vistasource.com
Version reviewed/available: Spreadsheets, Anyware Office 2.2
License: Proprietary
Cost: $99 US (for suite and application server)

As spreadsheet applications go, Spreadsheets is a pretty good all-around sort of tool. The interface, based on GTK+, is well put-together and easy to understand and use. Things weren't overly buried in the menus, either.

In the basic statistics, Spreadsheets holds the middle of the field of spreadsheets reviewed thus far: each sheet can handle 702 columns and 32,767 rows, giving a total of 23,002,434 cells per sheet. Anyware's documentation claims more than 300 functions, but I could only find 268 in the version I reviewed--still, a fair amount.

There are a lot of convenience features within Spreadsheets that are reminiscent of Excel and Lotus 1-2-3: Autofill, AutoFormat, pre-made templates, and an HTML wizard, just for starters. One feature that is really unique to Spreadsheets is the real-time data engine, which will allow you to create real-time, self-updating data sheets that can give you up-to-the-second information, if that's what you need. I did not delve too far into creating such a sheet, but the online demo of the function was very impressive.

Calculations are not as quick as some of the other spreadsheets I have reviewed to date; there always seemed to be a pause before cells would fill in with the right values. It wasn't bad, but for some of the larger cell operations, it was pretty noticeable.

The stability of the desktop version of the application seemed pretty good, but in my attempt to Autofill all of the cells with random numbers, the application locked up my entire KDE desktop. And I mean everything--I could not even Ctrl-Alt-Backspace my way out of the problem, which made this my first official system freeze of 2002. For a brief, cynical moment, I thought that VistaSource's developers had carried this cross-platform thing too far and was now trying to make my Linux system behave like a Windows system. Then I grudgingly hit the power button and fscked my way back to reality.

That may have been a weird fluke, I will admit, because when I tried the test again, it seemed to work, though slowly. So take this event as you will.

But there was one area that consistently failed to work properly: opening non-Spreadsheets documents. According to the interface and documentation, Spreadsheets is supposed to open Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, and Symbolic Link formatted files, along with CSV text. I did not test the latter three formats in this list, but when I tried to open my set of test Excel files (which span versions from Excel 97 to Excel XP), the import operation locked up every time. And these were not complicated files, nor were they anything that any of the other Linux spreadsheet applications I had tested thus far that claimed Excel compatibility had any trouble with.

Filters are apparently a long-standing problem with Anyware, and Applixware before it. If I could offer one piece of advice to the VistaSource developers, I would urge them to fix this issues as soon as they could. The thin-client, cross-platform capability is really great, but few organizations will never have to open an Excel file.

On the other hand, Anyware Office also includes a full-fledged application server that uses Java to transport itself to almost any platform. In other words, users can point their browsers to the application server and in about a minute they can have a fully functional, thin-client version of Anyware Office running on their machine. Which takes accessibility to a whole new level. With an Anyware Office application server running in an organization, it no longer matters who's running Linux or who's running Windows. Users can use the thin-client office suite to point to a common set of applications with a common file format. A multi-user filesystem is built into the server as well, so file sharing becomes that much easier across a centralized set of directories.

A big side benefit of this technology is that you can see it in action across the Internet first and get a try-before-you-buy opportunity. The Anyware Office online demo will show you a full-featured set of Anyware Office tools, all seamlessly working through your favorite Web browser. And as near as I could tell, all of the functionality of the desktop-installed version was duplicated in the online version. I concentrated on the abilities of Spreadsheets, naturally, and found that all of the features (and the foibles, too) worked identically on each platform.

If VistaSource can lick its problem with filtering, I think that they have a very strong offering, especially when you consider the $99 price will get you the application server as well as the desktop version of Anyware Office. A cross-platform and cross-format office suite would be an excellent addition to a business environment looking to slowly shift to a more open, less costly environment.

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