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Sofware in Review → Emulation/migration → Emulation frameworks →

CrossOver Office 5.0 review

By Jem Matzan

CrossOver Office, the Windows API emulation framework for GNU/Linux, is finally at version 5.0 after some delay. While CrossOver has always been useful but never quite perfect, this new release is a breakthrough in Windows compatibility and GNU/Linux desktop integration. If you've been in "wait and see" mode with CrossOver Office, this is the release that should push you toward it.

CrossOver Office overview

This section is for those new to CrossOver Office. If you already know what CXO is and want to find out what's new in version 5, skip down to the next section.

CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office (CXO for short) is a software framework that emulates the Microsoft Windows 98 and 2000 application programming interfaces (APIs) on GNU/Linux. This allows Windows programs to run on GNU/Linux without having to run a virtual instance of the operating system ala a virtual machine like Win4Lin or VMware. It was originally designed to bring Microsoft Office and Intuit Quicken to GNU/Linux, but many more programs have been tested and are known to work with CXO to some degree.

Not all Windows programs will run perfectly -- some won't even run at all, although most of them will at least install properly. Want to find out if your must-have application works with CrossOver? Check out their compatibility list, and keep in mind that not all of these programs have been updated to reflect changes made in version 5.0, as most entries rely on user and volunteer feedback for CodeWeavers' rating system. Check the forums for each application to see what actual users are saying about compatibility with version 5.0.

CrossOver Office is available in two editions: Standard and Professional. The two are essentially the same, except Professional has multi-user support and special deployability functions. Professional is designed for businesses, Standard for home users. There is also a CrossOver Office Server Edition, which allows CrossOver Office to run on thin clients.

CrossOver Office is based on the free software WINE API emulator, and adds only commercial support and proprietary installation tools to help with configuration. So in essence, CXO is no more capable than recent builds of WINE, but it does have a number of extras that add value through convenience. Despite its basis in free software, CrossOver Office is governed by a proprietary license that prohibits sharing.

New to version 5.0

The following improvements have been made to CXO since version 4.2:

  • Improved installer technology
  • Support for virtual Windows environments running either in traditional Windows 98 compatibility or for environments supporting Windows 2000/XP
  • "Bottles," which are discrete instances of the Windows API emulation framework
  • 64-bit Web browser plugin support
  • Better GNOME menu integration
  • Bronze medal status for Microsoft Office 2003
  • Overall improvements in the WINE framework, enhancing window manager integration, sound, and other various facets of program operation

Usually with new releases of CXO, there are slight, unremarkable changes, bugfixes, and other behind-the scenes work that make things a little better in a number of small ways. With version 5.0, the whole CXO package has improved by a significant margin. Programs that wouldn't even install before can now work to a reasonable degree of competency. Programs that almost worked before are now doing rather well. Although there are still only about a dozen Windows applications that have achieved the highest compatibility status -- gold medal -- with CodeWeavers, user feedback on the individual program sites in the CXO compatibility section suggests that many programs are ready to be promoted.

The big change in the CXO installation utility is the Bottle Manager. Bottles are separate instances of WINE; you use them to segregate installed programs from one another so that they don't accidentally interfere with each other. This prevents a new program from wrecking already installed programs that work well with the current configuration. The downside is, programs are completely isolated to their bottle, so if you have several programs that require Internet Explorer, you'll have to install Internet Explorer separately in every bottle. It's easier to use one bottle, which is what CXO did in previous versions, but this approach may cause trouble with some applications. In the Professional edition, bottles can be packaged into RPMs and deployed to other systems that have CrossOver Office installed, making deployment of Windows programs much easier. Doing this with proprietary programs may violate their licenses, however.

Putting 5.0 to the test

Click here for a screen shot of WordPerfect 12 in CrossOver Office 5.0.

Installation was as simple as running a shell script, which is retrieved from the CodeWeavers download server upon purchase. I was pleased to see that GNOME integration has greatly improved. Where version 4.2 refused to install the proper desktop icons and menu entries, 5.0 installed new program icons in all of the right places in GNOME 2.10.2 on Gentoo/AMD64.

My traditional test for CrossOver Office is Corel WordPerfect Office 12, which has had several different problems with CXO in the past. With version 5.0, some remain (such as the "enhanced" file dialogue bug, and the reluctance of the program to start more than once per X.org session), but overall I found WordPerfect to be stable and usable -- or at least moreso than before.

I also tested with the Muppet Treasure Island DVD game. I had trouble installing it, but after manually installing Indeo Video for Windows, the game would work somewhat, whereas in CrossOver Office 4.2 it wouldn't work at all. If I tinker with it for another hour or so I could probably get it to work better.

Bugs and problems

The CXO installer has an annoying bug that greys out the Next button whenever you put the CXO window in the background. When you click back into the CXO installation program, you have to click Back, then Next. I couldn't find any other bona-fide bugs in CrossOver Office 5.0, but I think it should be noted that the compatibility database is badly in need of a global update. There are many user reviews that assign various status markers to programs that are still listed as "untested" in the database. It's best to pay attention to the user comments in the forum above and beyond the CodeWeavers ratings.

I came across a bug in X.org version 6.8.2-r4 that blacked out all of the icons in Windows programs installed through CXO. This is a bug in X.org, not CrossOver Office, and is fixed by upgrading to version 6.8.2-r6 or higher.

Interview with Jon Parshall, COO of CodeWeavers

To get a better perspective on CrossOver Office, CodeWeavers, and the state of the market, I emailed some interview questions to Jon Parshall, Chief Operating Officer of CodeWeavers, Inc.

How much participation and help does CodeWeavers see from Windows software companies like Adobe, Macromedia, Microsoft, and others? Macromedia announced last year that it would help the WINE project where it concerned Macromedia programs. Have you seen any evidence of this?

Jon Parshall: Well, from Microsoft (obviously) we get no help at all, which isn't surprising. Wine is very high on the list of technologies they'd like to see killed off. Companies like Macromedia, Adobe, and Intuit all have good relations with us, but I would characterize their help as being of an informal nature. We're friends, and they occasionally provide us with copies of their software, as well as occasional technical assistance. But there's nothing there of a really formal, systemic, or monetary nature.

What's the future of the CrossOver Office installation tools? This release saw the addition of the Bottle Manager; what's the next step in the evolution of bottles?

JP: That's a really good question. As you're aware, we have a rather interesting business model, in that we support free software and the Wine Project by giving back our enhancements to Wine. At the same time, though, we are always looking for ways that we can differentiate ourselves from free Wine. Features like bottles are one way that we can provide some value-add over free Wine -- something that will appeal to system administrators and other "power users." I think you'll continue to see more features like this. And we'll certainly build on the concept of bottles -- make them more manageable and configurable -- because the notion of portable, encapsulated Wine environments is a powerful one.

How likely is it that someday all Windows programs will work perfectly through CrossOver Office?

JP: Well, I think the word "perfectly" is dangerous -- after all, many Windows programs don't work perfectly even under Windows. Do all your old Win95 apps run perfectly under XP? No. Will they under Vista? No. So I think it's important to note that even native Windows apps have problems with backwards compatibility across the various releases of the OS. That's already a problem for a lot of IT environments, in that that's what helps drive the relentless software/hardware upgrade cycle that drives many IT managers bananas. And that's not going to change.

At the same time, it's clear that Wine is still a long way away even from the level of native Windows, in whatever version you care to mention. That being said, we feel that Wine 0.9 represents a very significant step forward in Wine as a technology. It's architecturally complete now. We just need to do a lot more hard work on the individual components.

I think the answer to your question really hinges on the effort level behind Wine. Right now, the Wine community and CodeWeavers comprise a relatively small group of developers. And while we've managed to achieve a minor technological miracle with that limited resource pool, we could continue advancing that miracle a whole lot quicker if there were more developers and more money behind the effort. With proper backing, I'm convinced that Wine can move itself from being a niche technology--something that works brilliantly in some cases, but poorly in others--and towards a technology that 1) people perceive as being widely and generally useful, and 2) is relatively easily fixable from a development standpoint. Not perfect. But broadly accepted and easier to improve. That's the goal.

Conclusions

What an improvement! CrossOver Office 5.0 could, for some people, invalidate the need for expensive Windows virtual machines for running desktop software on GNU/Linux. The superiority of version 5.0 is due both to the substantial improvements in WINE and in the enhancements in the CXO tools themselves.

Microsoft Office 2003 compatibility is still not where it should be, even though much progress has been made in improving support for it. While Word and Excel are reported to work, Outlook 2003 is reported to be unusable in CrossOver Office. Outlook is arguably the most important part of the MS Office suite; not having it is a dealbreaker for many people. Still, MS Office XP, 2000, and 97 all have higher certifications, so if Microsoft Office is a must-have, some version of it will work well.

Purpose Migration tool/API emulator
Manufacturer CodeWeavers
Architectures x86
License Proprietary; the core is governed by the GNU General Public License
Market Home, small business, and enterprise users migrating to GNU/Linux
Price (retail) U.S. $40 for Standard, $70 for Professional
Previous version CrossOver Office 4.2
Product website Click here