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A first look at Gnumeric 1.0

Wow! Is the best spreadsheet on any platform Gnumeric?

(LinuxWorld) -- There are two types of projects in the collaborative world of free software and open source: those that need excuses for their performance and/or behavior and those that don't. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about one that does. My inbox afterwards provided DNA evidence of that fact.

This week I'm writing about the other kind. A project that has no need of excuses for anything. A project that recently released its 1.0 version, and one that may very well be jousting for the Best of Breed title for its genre in the future. And not just in the free/open source world. The application is a spreadsheet. The project is Gnumeric.

Miguel de Icaza began the Gnumeric project in 1998. Although he is no longer a part of the development team, he is very proud of its recent 1.0 release. de Icaza told me recently, "I have always been proud of Gnumeric, because it was probably the best code I had written and it was written with maintainability and clarity of the code in mind."

From the beginning, de Icaza has held to the notion that free software should be more than cool, more than cult-like. He wants it to be accessible to the rest of the world, not just ubergeeks: to students, to business people, to anyone who has need of it.

One way to make Linux more accessible to more people is to provide Linux users the tools they need for their day-to-day work. Like a full-featured spreadsheet, for example. de Icaza said, "Since the very early days I decided that Gnumeric should clone Excel: the idea was to attract Excel users to it, rather than using Gnumeric as a research tool."

And clone Excel it slowly has, copying feature for feature, function for function. That hasn't made the project less innovative. As de Icaza noted, "We did use Gnumeric to deploy a bunch of new technologies in Gnome... Gnumeric was the first to use the Gnome Canvas (indeed, it was built around it), Gnome Print, and eventually Bonobo. It also was the test bed for Gnome Basic for a long time."

When de Icaza and Nat Friedman formed Ximian, Inc. (originally called Helix Code) a couple of years ago, it was driven by that same idea: free software should be accessible to the masses. Suddenly the ultra cool GNOME environment was available to all. No more long and twisting road for installation. No more chants and magic spells required when doing maintenance. However, Ximian also began to take more of De Icaza's time. When the Mono project came up, he decided it was time to pass the baton for Gnumeric on to somebody else.

That's where Jody Goldberg and Morten Welinder come in. de Icaza credits them with the successful 1.0 launch. Goldberg picked up responsibility as the lead hacker for Gnumeric as de Icaza moved on to other things. Welinder has continued to one of the project's major contributors. The change in leadership wasn't an overnight thing. Goldberg explained, "One of the beauties of open source development is that a transition like this can be done very smoothly. I eased into maintainership over a span of 9-12 months."

According to one project insider, Goldberg took over when the project was "at the level of don't breathe hard on it, or it will crash." Now that 1.0 is finally out the door, I asked Goldberg what he thought of it.

I would really like to emphasize its stability. There are those that will be put off by the 1.0 label. Gnumeric is not your average proprietary program is not really be stable until v3.1. Nor is it a quick project that pops up on freshmeat with a nifty Web site and releases v0.9 after a few weeks. This is 3.5 years of work, approximately 80 releases, with several months of testing and a large regression suite.

Of course, the king of Spreadsheet Hill is still Microsoft Excel. I asked Goldberg how Gnumeric 1.0 compares. He said, "The main Gnumeric developers are all serious spreadsheet users looking for a way to get their work done. Several of us work in finance with MS Excel, which is tremendously powerful as long as it doesn't break. When it does, you are up a creek. Our goal with 1.0 was to produce enough functionality that day-to-day users can get their work done, while developing a solid framework for future use. I think we've succeeded."

I had problems installing Gnumeric 1.0 on my Mandrake 8.1 system. Ditto on Debian Potato. I know that others have successfully installed it on both those distributions, but for whatever reasons, I failed to do so. I did get it to install on Red Hat 7.2 quickly and easily, however. Here is how I did it.

From a fresh 7.2 installation, I updated the distribution with all the latest security and bug fixes via the Red Hat Network. Next, I installed the Ximian desktop via their free download. With an upgrade to the Ximian Red Carpet premium service, I grabbed the latest offerings for the Ximian GNOME desktop and installed them. By the way, the premium service really provides nice bandwidth. I was seeing 240 kilobytes per second -- about the max I can get on RoadRunner cable -- versus the roughly 16 kilobytes per second I normally get from Ximian.

That left me with Gnumeric .7x installed. I went to the RpmFind site (the URL is given in Resources below) and searched for gnumeric, finding a Red Hat Rawhide rpm for version 1.0.1. It downloaded and installed without a single complaint. The graphing function still didn't want to work, however. A quick look at the Gnumeric manual told me that I needed a later version of Guppi, the GNOME framework for graphing and interactive data analysis. Back to RpmFind, where I found and downloaded another Red Hat Rawhide rpm of the required level.

When I attempted to install the new Guppi, rpm complained that Gnucash (the cool Linux Quickcash substitute) depended on the older version. Since I haven't yet started using Gnucash, I forced the issue by telling rpm --nodeps and installed the newer version. As you can see from the chart below, showing predicted desktop market shares, graphing works!

Gnumeric 1.0.1

If you are intimidated by installing Gnumeric 1.0 on your own, that's ok. All the major distributions will be including it in future releases, and it will be folded into the Ximian GNOME desktop shortly. Version 1.0.1 came out shortly after the 1.0 release to fix a bug that caused it to crash. Early reports on the 1.0.1 version are that it is hard to crash, it is faster than Star Office, faster than Kspread, but still slower than Excel. Finally, its users tell me it scales well and provides most functionality required for heavy-duty spreadsheet work.

According to Goldberg, there is still a lot of work to do: porting to GNOME 2.0, rewriting portions for clarity and speed, and adding new functionality. He says the big four on the improvement list are auto-filters, pivot tables, graph export for XLS files, and the selection of a scripting language. Given the maturity, experience, and both the financial and coding expertise of the Gnumeric team, it's only a matter of time until I report that the best spreadsheet available anywhere is not Excel, but a free software project called Gnumeric.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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