xxl: A Free Spreadsheet for Linux

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The intent of xxl is to produce a graphical spreadsheet which is both uncomplicated and easy to learn and use.
Limitations

Since an undo command isn't currently implemented, saving often is advisable. The lack of graphing and charting capabilities limits the usefulness of xxl in a business environment, but xxl can produce nicely formatted text-only output. The use of Scheme (and STk's object-oriented Scheme extension, STklos) has its pros and cons. A user familiar with Scheme would be able to add extensions and generally adapt xxl to particular needs, but others will see xxl as yet another application with a new scripting language to learn. Scheme has a relatively simple and transparent syntax, and even non-Schemers can adapt existing scripts to their purposes. The case of the GIMP graphics application and its Scheme-based Script-Fu scripting facility shows that people can use existing scripts as templates to produce new functionality without being Scheme adepts.

Availability

The xxl web site (http://www.esinsa.unice.fr/xxl.html) has the latest information on xxl, as well as a link to the FTP download site.

Comparison with Other Free Spreadsheets

Several other freely available spreadsheets, offering various mixes of features are under development. I found the Siag (which stands for Scheme In A Grid) spreadsheet, part of the Siag Office Suite (http://www.edu.stockholm.se/siag/), to be easier to use than xxl. Like xxl, Siag is Scheme-based, but has both an X Window System and a character-mode interface. Siag can save in a variety of formats, including those supported by xxl, as well as Lotus 1-2-3, a native Siag format, Scheme code and troff. Along with its native Scheme, Siag has the ability to accept commands in Tcl, C and Guile (the GNU Scheme-based scripting language). Siag is distributed along with a basic word processor and an animation package. These two components are currently not as useful as the spreadsheet, but the source distribution includes all three. I've noticed that the Debian Linux distribution has separated these applications, so that if someone just wants the spreadsheet, it can be obtained separately.

Miguel Icaza, one of the principal developers of the GNOME desktop project, has been working on a spreadsheet called Gnumeric. It is still in the early stages, but looks as if it may end up being worthy of investigation. The screenshots available on the http://www.gnome.org/ web site certainly look promising.

The Oleo spreadsheet from the GNU project (ftp://alpha.gnu.org/pub/gnu/oleo/) has been available for quite awhile, but until recently it was strictly a character-mode application. I had just about given up on further development, when new versions began to appear in recent months. The current beta versions have a Motif X Window System interface (which compiles and functions well with newer versions of LessTif) and a GTK version is in the works. Oleo is particularly appealing to users of the Emacs or XEmacs text editors, as many of the key bindings are identical. Oleo can make use of Sciplot for graphical output. The current version (1.6.8) is not completely usable, but is meant as a proof-of-concept. I was impressed by the progress.

Conclusion

xxl is not an application that lends itself to quick utilization by the typical business user. The learning curve could be made simpler, although a user familiar with Scheme will have a definite advantage. More complete documentation (and perhaps a tutorial) would help. I found the icons on the toolbar to be misleading in a way. A traditional spreadsheet normally requires a user to learn the formula syntax and enter it manually. The xxl icon for summing a column, for example, will enter part of the formula needed, but not all. It seems to me that an icon should either do most of what is also needed in such a case or not be there at all, as the whole point of such icons is to make core tasks possible without prior study. On the plus side, xxl is free, and the Scheme scripts which contain most of its internal routines can be augmented and extended. The calculation functions seemed speedy enough, and the various save formats functioned well for me.

Those looking for a graphical spreadsheet with graphing and charting capabilities might take a look at Xesslite, an inexpensive subset of the Xess spreadsheet available in a 30-day trial form from http://www.ais.com/. A related commercial spreadsheet from another firm is NExS, available in a trial form from http://www.xess.com/prodinfo.html. Both of these products are able to read Excel files.

Other alternatives are the spreadsheets included with the Applixware and StarOffice business suites.

Larry Ayers lives on a small farm in northern Missouri, where he raises sheep, shiitake and shell scripts. His e-mail address is layers@marktwain.net.

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