Web-hosted productivity suites like Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365 are making major inroads in a market formerly dominated by desktop applications. They provide convenient online tools that work cross-platform for users who just need basic word processing or spreadsheets.
But these suites have one common disadvantage: They run on servers you don't have any direct control over, which means they can be changed -- or shut off -- at any time.
Open-Xchange's OX App Suite suggests another approach: It's a Web-based office application system that runs on your own Linux server. It isn't available in a publicly hosted version akin to Google Docs -- at least, not yet -- so some heavy lifting is required.
The suite features email (with optional connectivity to Microsoft Exchange), calendaring, task management and a file repository. It has also just added a new word processor named OX Text, which, according to the company, was developed by members of the original OpenOffice development team. The word processor will eventually be joined by spreadsheet and presentation apps.
I took a look at OX Text to see how it stands up against the likes of Google Docs and Office 365. Currently, OX Text's feature set is quite minimal -- fine for composing basic correspondence, but lagging far behind both what Google and Microsoft are offering. It amounts to "WordPad for the Web," although given time it could become a contender.
A different look
Log into OX App Suite and you're presented first with the Portal, a customizable tile-format overview of your inbox, appointments, tasks, upcoming birthdays and other widgets. One of the widgets, "My latest files," opens a selectable list the last documents you worked on.
The Portal is a customizable tile-format overview of your inbox, appointments, tasks, upcoming birthdays and other widgets.
Another way to enter the app is to look along the top of the portal, where there are tabs for the other components of the suite, such as the file organizer, the email app, the address book and the calendar. Click on Files, and you get access to all the various files you've worked with.
In either case, if you click on a particular file, a pop-up menu shows you a large thumbnail of the document, together with the chance to open, edit, download or delete the file. Choose Edit, and you're in OX Text.
Unlike Office 365, OX Text's onscreen layout doesn't strive to resemble a local application. Instead of menus or a ribbon interface, there are three strips of icons -- left, top and right.
The left-hand strip contains quick links to in-document search, printing and document downloading tools. The right-hand pane, which is collapsible, contains formatting and editing tools. If you collapse the right-hand pane, a few commonly used editing tools -- bold, italic, undo/redo -- appear as buttons that hover at the top right. Finally, the tab strip along the top lets you switch between multiple open documents.
Functionally, OX Text works a good deal like most competing Web-based word processors. Changes are saved automatically whenever you're not typing. Unicode is handled well; I edited documents that were mixes of Western and Asian character sets without problems.
OX Text uses Microsoft Office's DOCX format as its default document format, although ODT, TXT and RTF files can also be opened and edited. (RTFs are converted to ODT format for editing.) PDFs can also be uploaded and viewed, but not edited. All files uploaded to the system can also be downloaded for offline use.
OX Text has a collapsible pane which contains formatting and editing tools.
OX Text also has some sharing capabilities. Documents are shared through the file organizer, where you can manage access rights to files and folders for any number of other users on the same installation of OX App Suite. (You can also give people a public read-only Web link.) Try to open a document that someone else is editing, and you'll get a message asking whether or not you want to acquire the edit rights to that document.
While only one person at a time can actually edit a document, other people with the same document open can see the changes being added in real time. This isn't quite as useful as the real-time collaborative editing offered by Google Docs and Office 365, but it's close.
Clicking on the Search icon in the left-hand strip toggles a Search bar along the top, which also works as a search-and-replace tool. The search function only lets you look for straightforward strings of text, though -- there's no apparently way to use wildcards or regular expressions to perform more sophisticated searches.
Minimal editing features
The real shortcoming with OX Text, at least so far, is how minimal the editing features are. There's some basic text formatting (including tables and images) and a spell-checker that didn't seem to be implemented in the preview version I looked at. Right clicking on text in a document does nothing; it doesn't even bring up a context menu (except when you right click on hyperlinks).
There are also a few browser-related glitches. In Chrome, for example, the End key doesn't always take you to the end of a line -- it often takes you instead to the beginning of the next one. (Firefox didn't have this problem.)
At a Glance
Open-Xchange AGPrice: Free for non-commercial usePros: Can host on own hardware; clean, easy-to-use interfaceCons: Feature set not yet competitive
Other missing features make it difficult to use OX Text for professional work. You can't add footnotes or endnotes, for instance, and when I attempted to import a document that featured them, they were stripped out without warning. And while each document has a version history that can be seen in the app's file management pane, there's no way to track changes or compare multiple versions of a document to see how they differ. On the plus side, you can add hyperlinks, and OX Text does preserve any links present in imported documents.
The way printing is handled is also a little strange. Instead of invoking the browser's own print function, OX Text renders the document in question as a PDF and then has the browser download it locally. This actually isn't a bad idea, since PDFs provide for far more fine-grained control over text and images than HTML does, but the rendered PDF often has variations in font choices or other formatting options from the original document.
Documents can also be "published" -- shared out to the Internet at large -- via a static URL. Select this option and you'll be popped into the OX App Suite's email client, with a newly created mail that features the link in question.
OX Text's current attraction is that you can host an instance of OX App Suite (and thus OX Text) on your own hardware, and so keep far closer control over it. But as it stands, OX Text needs a much broader feature set before it can be taken seriously as competition for Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365.
The current version of the suite can be downloaded and hosted on various editions of Linux. A community edition of the product is available at no cost for non-commercial use, and various support licenses are available for hosts, resellers, or businesses. An online test drive version is also available. The noncommercial version is, of course, free; as of this writing, there was no official pricelist yet for commercial licensing.
This article, OX Text review: An in-browser word processor with big ambitions, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.
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