Lately I've been seeing more and more buzz surrounding Kingsoft Office for Linux. KSO has been gaining a rather devoted following despite it's Linux port still being in alpha and not near to release. My first familiarity with Kingsoft Office was reading about their Android offering which has had rave reviews and a devoted following. Across all platforms, people praise it for its interface and its exceptional compatibility with Microsoft Office formatted documents. So with all the buzz, rumors, and conflicting information I wanted some clear answers for myself and to share with you. On May 5th I had the opportunity to interview Jin who serves as the Chief Software Architect for +Kingsoft Office .
Before I dive right into the things we addressed in the course of our interview, I wanted to give you a brief background for Kingsoft and their office software. For brevity I'll pull from Wikipedia.
Kingsoft was founded in 1988 by the JinShan company located in Hong Kong. JinShan is a manufacturer of IBM PCs and was founded in 1973. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kingsoft researched and developed word processors and other office applications, such as its flagship product, Word Processing System 1.0, which launched in 1989. Today, the latest version of Kingsoft Office 2013 is a freeware office suite which includes Kingsoft Writer, Kingsoft Presentation and Kingsoft Spreadsheet. Kingsoft has established collaborative relationships with Dell, Intel and IBM.
Jin mentioned that Kingsoft has attempted Linux ports in the past (2003, 2007, 2009), which did not succeed. Kingsoft Office (the Chinese market version is called WPS) has over 10 million lines of code, making this porting effort very significant. Complicating the porting effort further is the matter that over 600 dialogs are written in Delphi which needs to be rewritten, including the chart feature which many users have bemoaned the lack of.
So why though is Kingsoft making such a powerful effort to port their flagship office suite to Linux? The reasons Jin gives are interesting. "Firstly, *Nix is a large family of operating systems. Making our product for Windows only is not a good strategy. We once depended on Delphi, and have paid a price for this. So now we say to not put all of our eggs in one basket." Once bitten twice shy, they have come to be reticent of relying on proprietary technologies. I asked about +OpenOffice.org and +LibreOffice, "These are very powerful suites, but fall short in two major areas; the interface, and compatibility with Microsoft document formats." Elaborating on their emphasis of compatibility, he stated they had four dedicated teams working on compatibility with Microsoft formats exclusively. In response to the reports I've read saying that previous versions of Kingsoft Office were based on OpenOffice, "er... It's a rumour, KSO was never based on OpenOffice."
Though these are all philosophically sound reasons, I doubted it was so simple. Certainly we could use a better office suite (I used to work in zoning and entitlements, and wasted a lot of time trying to generate complex documents in LibreOffice) and I certainly can understand being wary of vendor lock in. Jin mentioned, "Linux deals" and I pried a bit further. "Last year, we have a deal from Canonical. They want to make a business version." Canonical whom makes the +Ubuntu distribution has purchased 5 million OEM licenses in order to do this. "They need an office similar to MS Office."
I think the implications for a KSO business version from Canonical could be huge. Clearly this means Kingsoft and Canonical are gunning for the big daddy of the office, Microsoft Office. But this could also mean Canonical is looking to move into the business and enterprise desktop market putting them in direct and formidable competition with the likes of +SUSE whom has been in this arena for a long time. Also, it may imply there could be a version for the Ubuntu Phone OS which could bring their devices into a realm of mobile business that has been largely the domain of +BlackBerry. Whatever the case is, I think it's good news for +Linux users everywhere and helps bring people who weren't able to transition to Linux due to the lack of Microsoft Office in a much better position to join us.
There has been a good amount of rumor saying that Kingsoft will release the code as open source for KSO. Considering how Kingsoft has learned to shy away from proprietary lock in, it might even seem plausible. However, when asked Jin stated "Free to use and distribute. Kingsoft Office is the only profitable product for us. Open source is a very dangerous choice for us. We will however release some source of our product such as emf support, we know the Linux community needs it also." With this in mind I asked what would happen to KSO for Linux when it's ready for official release and out of testing. "KSO for Linux is based on our Pro version, having the full set of functions. We will not change it, but the name will change to Community Version." So thankfully the Linux community will still be getting Kingsoft Office Pro without any feature regressions, and still offered as free to use and distribute.
They plan to bring important features such as charting, mail merge, and the ability to embed formulas in Writer documents. However, the challenges are significant. Besides the transition from Delphi, much of KSO relies on Microsoft APIs. "And too many thing out of our control, for example; we can't input formula in Kingsoft Writer. Why? Because we buy a formula editor on Windows Version. But they can not offer a Linux version. Mail merge is similar. We can not find a good data source on Linux."
Finally I asked how we in the Linux community can help, and if there is any message they would like to convey. "We need quality assurance." "We want to thank the Linux community for their support and enthusiasm. We are not the best yet, but we are working hard on it."
P.S. To install in +openSUSE is very simple. Simply download the RPM from their site and install as you would any RPM. In my test, everything works correctly. KSO checks for updates on launch, and will prompt you to download the newest available alpha version.