December 23, 2005
This review was first published on Newsforge.com.
If you just can’t bear to part with Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, or Quicken, but want to make the switch to Linux, relax — CodeWeavers’ CrossOver Office has you covered.
I have recently been getting a lot of questions from people about switching to Linux. The people asking these questions aren’t your average techies, they are mostly small business owners. For some reason, everyone has suddenly decided to ask about “this Linux thing.”
The question they ask the most is related to the amount of money they can save by not buying commercial software. But while they are willing to learn to use free alternatives for most of their software, most are unwilling to part with one piece of software — Microsoft Office.
Users have many reasons for wanting to hang on to Microsoft Office. Some people have already purchased the licenses, and don’t want to waste them. Others are comfortable with Office, and don’t want to spend time and effort learning something new. And some are willing to learn to use OpenOffice.org, they just want MS Office installed as a safety net, so that they can go back to using something they are used to if it doesn’t work out.
While it is technically possible to install Windows software on Linux using the Wine project, it requires a lot of technical know-how, and painful troubleshooting. It’s not as simple as putting the CD in and pressing install.
CodeWeavers took note of the sizeable market for a solution that makes installing and using Windows software under Linux as easy as installing and using it under Windows. Their flagship product, Crossover Office is based on the Wine project, but incorporates substantial changes to make installation of Windows programs a piece of cake.
What’s new in CrossOver 5.0?
CodeWeavers recently released version 5.0 of CrossOver Office. This version has support for Microsoft Office, including Office 2003, Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Dreamweaver, Quicken, and a host of other Windows software.
The most notable change in this new version is the concept of “bottles.” A bottle is basically a separate virtual drive for each instance of installed software. For example, if you install MS Office, and Adobe Photoshop, they will exist on separate virtual drives, with separate files.
This approach has certain drawbacks, the most noticeable one being when you are need something like Internet Explorer, which is generally installed only once and then used by various programs. Using CrossOver, you’ll need to install IE in every bottle separately. It is possible to force an application to install in an existing bottle, but CrossOver warns you that doing so is “likely to produce errors”. I tried installing Flash MX and Dreamweaver MX in the same bottle, and it worked, but this may not always be the case.
The advantages to this approach outweigh this inconvenience, though. You can be sure that installing a new program will not ruin a working program. This used to happen occasionally with previous versions of CrossOver Office, and it was a major show-stopper. The peace of mind the new approach gives is worth the slight trouble of installing some software multiple times.
CrossOver Office is available in Standard and Professional editions. The two are functionally identical, but the Professional version has some extra features which home users won’t really miss like multi-user support and the ability to create RPMs with CrossOver and Windows apps installed under CrossOver. The company also offers a CrossOver Office Server Edition, which allows CrossOver Office to run on thin clients.
Installing CrossOver Office
According to the requirements page, CrossOver Office should run on many Linux distributions on x86 hardware, with a 200MHz or faster CPU and at least 50MB of disk space available. CrossOver Office also requires Glibc 2.2.5 or higher, and Perl 5 or later with threads enabled.
I tested Crossover Office Professional under Ubuntu 5.10 and SUSE 10.0. After I downloaded the 15MB file, installation was a simple matter of double clicking and pressing “Next” a few times. It installed properly in under two minutes, and added itself to the Gnome Menu in Ubuntu, and the KDE Menu in SUSE.
After CrossOver installed, I stared to install my selected list of Windows software. I decided to try Microsoft Office 2003, Dreamweaver MX and Flash MX, and Adobe Photoshop. Just for fun, I also tried iTunes and Musicmatch Jukebox
Office 2003 installed and worked fairly well, with the exception of Outlook 2003. Outlook support in CrossOver always lags a version or two behind the latest version of Microsoft Office. Outlook 2000 and XP work to some extent, at least, if not perfectly. The lack of Outlook 2003 support isnoted on the CodeWeavers site.
Word 2003 and Excel 2003 worked well, and I was able to open complex documents which Openoffice.org chokes on. Also, the apps seemed to work a little faster on Linux than on Windows, on the same hardware. This is probably because my Windows installation has accumulated all sorts of crud over the past year, while the Crossover Office bottle has nothing but the essentials required to run MS Office. Still, it was rather surprising to see Microsoft apps working better under Linux!
Dreamweaver MX and Flash MX worked perfectly. The 2004 versions do not work at all, though. If you are using the older versions, you’ll have no problems using them under Crossover Office. Adobe Photoshop had a similar tale to tell. Version 7 worked flawlessly, but the newer versions would not even install. Apple iTunes 4.9.0 was functional, though CD ripping and syncing with my iPod did not work. MusicMatch Jukebox 10 did not install at all.
The separate bottles approach leads to some interesting situations. For instance, if you are using a version of Internet Explorer in one bottle, and have MS Office loaded in another bottle, you can’t copy and paste text between them. It seems like it should work, but it doesn’t. It was a bewildering few minutes before I figured out what was going on. As long as you remember that different bottles are essentially independent Windows machines, everything’s fine. Web developers especially will appreciate the ability to have different versions of Internet Explorer installed independently, for testing purposes.
At the end of the day, Crossover Office does a few things very well. Office runs well, and some major apps like Dreamweaver, Flash, and Photoshop will work, as long as you don’t try using the latest versions.
Is this worth paying $39.95 (Standard) or $69.95 (Professional) for? It depends. If you are able to work with the Linux alternatives like OpenOffice.org, the GIMP, and Nvu, then by all means save your money and buy a Tux t-shirt instead.
However, if you have effort and money invested, or you absolutely have to have MS Office, Dreamweaver or any of the other supported apps, Crossover Office is a useful purchase. Sure, it’s not perfect, and has its share of problems, but CodeWeavers have focused on getting the essentials right, and they’ve done a fairly good job.