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WPS Office Spreadsheet v Excel: at last, one that works!

The project is to build a Linux Mint machine to have the identical functionality and ergonomics as the existing Windows 10 machine.

This stage relates to finding a spreadsheet package that handles existing data - over 10 years-worth of data - to migrate from Windows to Linux.  LibreOffice failed to meet the required functionality, resulting in the project being downgraded.  Time became available to test WPS Office, the result of which is that the project may continue.

Environment & required functionality

Excel-like functionality - in particular the use of linked workbook references in formulae such as SUMIF() - needs to be used on the following machines:
  • The Linux Mint Xfce 18.3 laptop "Gandalf";
  • A Linux Mint Xfce 18.3 virtual machine "Gimli";
  • The Windows 10 laptop "Legolas".
The synchronisation agent is Google Drive in Windows 10, and either grive2 or google-drive-ocamlfuse in Linux Mint.

This test focussed on spreadsheets, with no attention on word-processing or slide shows.

Alternatives

A number of contributors to a Linux Mint forum in which I moaned about the lack of comparable functionality of LibreOffice suggested the following alternative software, within the paradigm of locally-installed software:

  • Excel within a virtual machine;
  • WPS Office;
  • gnumeric;
  • SoftMaker FreeOffice 2018 for Linux;
  • Google Sheets;
  • re-write more than 10-years worth of spreadsheets to fit the limitations of Excel equivalents;
In addition, another source revealed one more app:

  • OnlyOffice.

Software selection

At this time, running Microsoft software in Linux Mint compromises the objective of the project, so tests of these strategies is deferred for now.

The following software  failed to meet the functional requirements in a standardised test:


The following software met the functional requirements in the same standardised test:



Installation experience

Installation was in the traditional Windows way: go to the vendor's website (or, in this case, the community's website), download a file, install it.  The software appear to have no repository (no PPA).


User experience

By default, WPS Office Spreadsheet's initial user interface is precisely what Excel should have done at the outset.  The ribbon menus of Excel 2007/2016 are visible, but hidden underneath the spreadsheet menu is the older Excel 2003 menu structure.  All parts of the menu look keyboard-accessible: a range of the old Excel 2003 and new Excel 2007 keystrokes all work.  The Excel keyboard/power user is able to use WPS as if it were Excel, with only a few keystrokes differing (e.g. Edit Links, ALT+E+K in Excel, ALT+E+H in WPS).

Spookily, WPS Spreadsheet is so closely aligned with Excel that many of the dialogue boxes look identical (e.g. Find, Replace & GoTo, Paste Special).  They even share the same keyboard accelerators.

The same test rig used for all the spreadsheet packages found that SUMIF works identically between WPS and Excel: SUMIF can work with references to external workbooks.

WPS meets overcomes the core functionality of Excel.  It is the only alternative to Excel tested so far that meets the requirements.

Following a successful test, WPS was tested with an instance of live data.  WPS successfully delivered a full month of accounts without issue, delivering the same functional output as Excel.  Perfect!

WPS has some limitations for the power-user of Excel:

  • it provides no functionality for keystroke F5 (GoTo Bookmark).  Instead, the user must use the mouse to select the bookmark box to the left of the edit bar and type the bookmark name therein.
  • WPS provides damaged keyboard access to select a row.  SHIFT+SPACE selects a row, just like Excel, but unlike Excel erroneously types a space in the active cell, overwriting its contents.
  • WPS provides no keyboard access to select a column.  CTRL+SPACE is inactive, whereas Excel gets it right.  SHIFT+SPACE+CTRL+SPACE should thus select the whole sheet, but WPS prohibits this.
WPS honours Excel's rules for linked workbooks.  WPS thus revealed that the file system structures of Windows and Linux are always going to conflict where the software insists on absolute file path references.  Accordingly, even the ultra-compatible WPS would require a suite of linked workbooks to be re-linked on migration (likewise for Excel on reverse-migration).  This (again) indicates that migration from Windows to Linux ought to be a "big-bang" approach (instead of a parallel co-existence approach).  WPS's similarity to Excel means that a "big-bang" approach is eminently possible.

During the extended test (using live data), there was one other difference between Excel and WPS: in a pivot table, WPS did not recognise the auto-formatting of Excel  and vice versa.  In the greater scheme of things, this is trivial.

WPS does not offer web queries.  Excel offers web queries and software which converts JSON-formatted data into useable data for normal people (ordinary users).

During the course of this test, WPS released v 10.1.0.6758.  The software announced the new release a few days before it was available for download from the community's website.  This test did not include this new version.

WPS originates from Kingsoft, a Chinese company.  WPS is used by the Chinese state, so clearly needs to be functional in a corporate environment, which is probably why its keyboard accessibility is nearly as good as Excel's.  Although there are arguably potential issues with privacy, the same is true of Excel even as a downloaded tool (not used with a Microsoft Account or Office 365): the user's choice is whether the American National Security Agency slurps the user's data, or the Chinese Communist Party's security agency!

Conclusion

WPS Office spreadsheets meets the required functionality.  Its similarity to Excel means that a "big-bang" migration from Windows to Linux regarding spreadsheets is possible.

The project is back on!


Completed 17Mar2019.


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