Open-Xchange takes aim at no less than Microsoft Office, Google Docs

OX CEO Rafael Laguna talks format headaches and free software

As his interviewer stumbles for an appropriately careful term to describe the state of open-source office software development, Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange, offers to help.

"Just say it -- they're not good. They're crap, because they all get one thing wrong -- and this is also true for Google Apps -- they all introduce their own file formats."

Rafael Laguna

Rafael Laguna, CEO, Open-Xchange

Laguna compares the process of converting a document from .docx to .odt format (for use with LibreOffice, for example) and then back to .docx to translating information back and forth in Google Translate several times.

"It really garbles up your stuff," he says. Formatting gets lost. Tables get crunched and deformed. Fonts are missing. So what's to be done?

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Open-Xchange, or OX, is a German company probably best known for its App Suite, a set of Web-based open-source programs for email, calendars and other basic collaboration functions that many companies have long entrusted to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange.

Late last month, however, OX announced that it's working on something more ambitious -- a fully open-source, Web-based office productivity suite called OX Documents. Rather than selling the product directly to customers, however, OX plans to build an ecosystem of partner resellers and offer support to big enterprise users.

The nucleus of Open-Xchange's office team got its start at a Hamburg company called Star Division, which was bought up by Sun Microsystems in the late 1990s to help work on OpenOffice. After Oracle (which, in turn, bought Sun in 2010) called a halt to development on the project and handed off the code base to the Apache Foundation in 2011, the Star Division team got laid off with everyone else.

"That same team had been working on what Sun turned into OpenOffice for 20 years. And they said 'we're like a family, we want to stay together,'" says Laguna.

The team came to him with the idea of starting their own company -- but Laguna chose to simply hire them and start a new project instead.

"So here I have 15 guys that have been doing office development for 20 years ... so they know how to do that," he says. "And [Open-Xchange is] a real-time Web application development company, so we know how to do that kind of stuff. So meshing the two companies together resulted in an architecture that's very clever."

The idea behind OX Text -- the newest major component of the company's open-source office app suite -- is to break down the creation and edition of documents into discrete actions. Instead of requiring full integration of both proprietary and open-source file formats when opening a new file, OX Text simply replays the actions (entering text, changing margins, and so on) necessary to recreate a document.

Anything OX's recognition system doesn't understand -- like certain types of formulae or art formats, which tend to break compatibility with the .odt standard and Google Docs -- it simply ignores and replaces with a placeholder, says Laguna.

After changes are made to, say, a .docx file in the browser-based editor, the framework can simply "replay" the changes and update the original document seamlessly. "If I send this file to you and you're a Word user and you open it, you'll see the same stuff is still there."

OX Text was supposed to officially launch Monday, but Laguna says that minor QA issues will push the release to later in the week. There's another catch, however, for those eager to give it a whirl -- while OX doesn't charge for the use of the software itself, it also doesn't provide a consumer-facing, public cloud option, which means you'll have to host it yourself if you want to kick the tires.

"We're not a service provider; we're not Salesforce or Google, where we would set up the service directly for people," says Laguna. "Instead, we have people who know how to provide services."

"There is no good open-source license yet for the cloud application age," says Laguna. "The old ones ... don't make sense." So the back-end server code is licensed under the GPL, and the OX Text Web application uses the Creative Commons non-commercial share-alike license. Essentially, this means you can do whatever you like with the code, but if you want to sell something based on it, you have to go through OX.

The company will commercialize OX Apps by taking a cut of sales from businesses building custom versions of the software for profit, as well as selling support and services, Laguna says.

"This way, we have a very scalable business model on the one hand, but we're sort of in the same boat with [the customer]," according to Laguna. "They start making money, we make money."

OX's Apps framework is an impressive unified Web-based desktop, featuring integrated mail, address book, calendar and file management features presented with an interface that looks like a blend of Google Docs and the latest generation of MS Office programs. There's also a dedicated mobile site.

Laguna says keeping everything compatible with all the major browsers is often a headache.

"This is why I hate this recent announcement of Google's, where they said they're forking WebKit," he quips.

You can give OX Apps a try here, along with Text when it's released.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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