Running MS Office under Linux with CodeWeaver's CrossOver Office

by Jeffrey McDonald

For many, making the move to Linux is an easy step. Based on the facts that Linux is fast, stable and of course, free, it's not difficult to see why so many folks are making the move away from the world of Windows. As Linux desktop converts, we do need to accept some limitations, at least in the office applications category. While there are very good open-source office applications and even full office suites, none of them are a complete replacement for, or are fully compatible with, Microsoft's office suite. So for Linux to continue to succeed on the desktop (or laptop for that matter), a better solution to the office application shortage needs to be resolved.

I think most would agree that Microsoft Office is a good product. With rich features, strong toolset and relative ease of use, it has become the de facto office suite for many users and corporations alike. With that in mind, wouldn't it be ideal if we could run the MS Office suite on top of Linux? In this way, we could keep our beloved office programs--and compatibility with most of the world's business population--and work in a much more stable environment under Linux.

Now, how do we go about accomplishing this near-perfect balance between compatible office suite functionality and OS stability? Well, this article takes a look at one such product that does exactly what it claims to do: runs Microsoft Office 97 and 2000 on top of your Linux OS. And as an added bonus, run Outlook so that many of us finally can access our corporate mail and calendars from Exchange, while working from a Linux box.

Wine Is Good for You

For the past year, I have been using Linux exclusively on my laptop and desktop computers, and am continually impressed by the stability, reliability and sheer performance. Those who work around me on even faster, more modern computers can be heard mumbling and groaning about how slow their OS has become over time, or about how the system grinds away at its page file after booting and of course my personal favorite--the blue screen! I used to be one of these people, but since moving away from the Windows OS completely, I no longer have to deal with the annoyances and lost data associated with Window's inherent instability.

Over the past couple of years I have been following the Wine Project, which has a charter to create an environment that would allow Linux users to run specific Windows applications within their favorite Linux environment. Considering Windows applications are dependent upon the Windows API and the presence of DLL's, OCX's, etc., the Wine group's task is not an easy one. Plus, up until now, installing and configuring Wine to run Windows applications has not been as successful or easy as many would like.

But recently I discovered an application that utilizes the incredible work from the folks in the Wine Project, allowing users to install an environment to run applications from the Microsoft office suite easily. I have been looking desperately for a solution to run Outlook and MS Office, because the corporation I work for is running 100% MS Office and Outlook/Exchange. There are a lot of Linux SMPT and POP mail utilities, but not much in the way of getting dynamic data from Exchange servers into Outlook (i.e., calendar events). The folks at Ximian do have an excellent-looking Outlook replacement client called Evolution, and the newly released "Exchange Connector", but only for Exchange 2000 (and we are still on Exchange 5.5).

Enter CodeWeavers

CodeWeavers has incorporated the Wine Project's code into a product called CrossOver Office. The real beauty lies in CrossOver Office's simplicity. All a user has to do is run a simple install script that creates the necessary environment to install MS Office and Outlook. Best of all, the CrossOver Office product costs a reasonable $54.95 US and is downloadable from the CodeWeaver's web site, as is the free 30-day trial product.

Before installing CrossOver Office, decide if the installation of MS Office is to be specific to an individual user, or a group of users that log in to the system. If your requirements are the former, you will want to install CrossOver Office while logged in to the system with your user name. But if you prefer the multi-user install, log in as root to perform the installation. As always, refer to the CrossOver Office documentation and help screens. To install CrossOver Office for a single user (we'll use me as an example), change to the directory to which you downloaded the script file, and type the following from the command line (see also Figure 1):

[jsmcdon1@nettech01-mobl jsmcdon1]$ sh

If this is the first time you have installed CrossOver Office, you will see the user-install options screen (mentioned previously) and shown in Figure 2. The CrossOver Office installer will begin by showing a uniquely worded EULA (End User License Agreement) screen, followed by the installation options screen shown in Figure 3. Accept the default values for installation location, unless you need to have CrossOver Office installed somewhere else. Click Begin Install, and in less than a minute you are greeted with the form shown in Figure 4, which gives you the option to configure CrossOver Office and begin your installation of MS Office. At the time of this writing, CrossOver Office supports Microsoft Office 97 and 2000, and Lotus Notes, but other applications are being added in future releases (see CodeWeaver's web site for a current listing of supported applications).

All you need to do next is click the Add button and point CrossOver Office to the installation location of your MS Office application(s). After that, you will be greeted with the familiar MS Office installer screen. From this point on, just install MS Office as you would on any Windows box, selecting options you want installed.

Note: at the time of this writing, both MS Access and Visio 2000 were not supported, but have been reported to work in some installations. CodeWeavers is working toward building support for these and many other applications into future releases.

Once the Office installation is completed, you should have a working set of MS Office binaries. If you look in the /home/your_user_id directory under /cxoffice/bin, you will see individual binaries for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook (depending on which applications you installed). Try launching one of them by either typing the name on the command line or by clicking on the binary from your particular file manager application.

When I launched Word 2000 on my laptop and had all the menus and options that I would expect to see, the real kick for me was finally being able to have full access to most of Outlook's functionality (with some caveats of course), and get my calendar from our corporate exchange servers. Not being able to read attachments sent from other users or have access to my calendar dynamically was a real pain, and resulted in missed meetings and the inability to view attached files with the correct formatting. While StarOffice and KOffice are great products, neither could replace fully my dependency on MS Office and Outlook in my corporate work environment.

Get the Latest Version

If you have been using CrossOver Office or tried the 30-day demo and were disappointed in the performance or stability, I encourage you to try the 1.0.1 release. This release cured many annoying problems such as application hang and crashing, printing issues and the occasional disappearance of Outlook from the desktop, to name a few. With this release, I am now extremely happy with CrossOver Office and see no need for anyone who wishes to migrate off of a Microsoft OS to wait any longer. Considering the reasonable cost of CrossOver Office, and the free updates to new versions and bug fixes, it is well worth the money. As a bonus for you Microsoft Internet Explorer folks, CrossOver Office installs a working version of IE as well, so you can import your bookmarks into the new IE under Linux and keep on surfing.

One more thing before we close. CodeWeavers has made great efforts to provide a comprehensive support section on its web site. Not only do you find the usual FAQ section, but there also is a very well organized list of e-mail questions between end users and CodeWeaver's support personnel. I have found the answers to all of my questions just by searching through the e-mail listings in this section. Also, if you have an issue that hasn't been addressed, you can enter a support ticket and receive a unique ticket number so that you can track the problem to resolution.

All in all, I found the support information very comprehensive, and the responses from CodeWeaver's support gurus very helpful.

Give CodeWeaver's CrossOver Office a try if you need MS Office support in your Linux environment. It provided the finishing touch for my move to a full-Linux platform.

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