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

OX CEO Rafael Laguna talks format headaches and free software

By , Network World
April 09, 2013 10:42 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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