Open Xchange: Why The World Needs Another Productivity Suite

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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OX Text respects file formats, says Frank Hoberg, co-founder of Open Xchange

Open Xchange, the German company focused on email and collaboration software, has recently started rolling out its open source, cloud-based office productivity suite – OX Documents.

OX Text, released last week, will soon be followed by OX Spreadsheets and OX Presentations. But why would anyone venture into the crowded market of productivity software where Microsoft, Google, Apple and various teams of open source enthusiasts are already at each other’s throats?

“The question is – do you really want to give all of your data in the cloud to Google or Apple? We combine two ideas – with OX, users can have the benefits of the cloud, with flexible storage and easily accessible applications, but with security features and data policies that are very different from those offered by large software corporations,” Frank Hoberg, co-founder of Open Xchange, told TechWeekEurope.

From scratch

Open Xchange was established back in 2000 to provide a Linux-based, open source alternative to Microsoft Exchange server software. From a technology perspective, its platform is a sort of middle-ware, consisting of a Java-based backend, implemented as an OSGi bundle, a frontend implemented in JavaScript and various extensions.

2_thats_management_Hoberg_LThe user interface is written using HTML5 and CSS3, and enables email, calendar, contact and file management. In recent years, the inevitable influence of social networks has pushed OX to introduce some collaboration elements into its platform.

Open Xchange integrates into existing infrastructure, using APIs which Hoberg describes as “ruthlessly open”. Anyone can download and deploy OX software, for free. However, once it is used for business purposes, OX will ask for a modest licensing fee, which Hoberg says would cost about half of what they would pay for an Office 356 license.

Last week, Open Xchange finally launched OX Text, the first in a series of open source office productivity tools, made by some of the same people that worked on OpenOffice prior to Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems.

Three years in the making, OX Text allows users to edit any of the popular document formats online in real time, complete with rolling backup, change tracking and other features that make work in the cloud more comfortable.

Best of all, it was written from scratch around the features required by today’s office dweller, avoiding costly, time-consuming modernisation to decades-old code.

A different approach

“In the market, people are realising this is a real competitor to what Google and Microsoft are offering. Their approach is to convert everything into their own proprietary data formats, and that always results in a mess. We don’t convert anything, so the documents don’t fall apart, don’t lose formatting or change tracking. For us, it doesn’t matter what format the file is in – we keep it in that format.”

OX_App_Suite_FamilyIf OX Text encounters a format or part of a document it doesn’t understand, it doesn’t change it. For example, an attempt to convert a document containing Microsoft’s proprietary SmartArt format often ruins it. Not with OX – the software would simply ignore SmartArt, and make the rest of the document editable. Once saved, the document would look as if it was never opened in anything else but Word.

Another unique characteristic of OX Text is how often it saves the document – after every single modification. Afterwards, the document can be restored to any of the previous states – a feature no doubt inspired by open source development process itself.

Visually, the new suite looks more like products from Adobe than those from Microsoft, with its simple, clean design that hides countless advanced options.

“We gave our developers the opportunity to focus on the most important parts of the office software. And these guys know exactly what users need. From the start, it was made for the web, for the cloud, in HTML5,” explained Hoberg.

“Don’t get me wrong, the same people still contribute to OpenOffice. We don’t take developers away, they are working together to keep the standards alive. If we come up with the fixes that are relevant to OpenOffice or LibreOffice, we will release them to the community. We are an open source company, and we know our responsibilities.”

The OX Spreadsheet, an alternative to Microsoft’s Excel, is set to be released around September, and OX Presentations is expected in the beginning of next year.

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