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Most free-libre accounting applications that ship with GNU/Linux distributions are for personal accounting only: they manage one person's finances. Corporations and accounting firms need far greater functionality, however, such as the ability to maintain a complete sets of multi-company accounts, tally final accounts automatically, generate MIS reports, and function synchronously across multiple offices. Though there are some free-libre applications with such functionality, such as SQL Ledger and Ledger-SMB, the lay user may find their installation complicated, as it can involve manual configuration with the PostgreSQL database, possibly the programming language Perl, and the remote access software Samba. And these accounting apps are not installed by default in any distribution. But OpenLX is a distro with an accounting app.
The India-based OpenLX distribution comes with the KalCulate accounting package (not to be confused with the Kalculate calculator). The application is closed source and proprietary, though bundled with a free-libre operating system. Therefore, KalCulate is clearly positioned on pricing and usage advantages, not on freedom. Bundled with OpenLX it costs 500 Indian rupees, or about $13, making it more affordable than similar software from large, monopolistic operators. This price gets you a two-month trial version of KalCulate; after that time, you must enter a license key.
You can also buy older versions of OpenLX bundled with KalCulate. These are, respectively, meant for a small office and a large networked environment. They differ mostly in the number of configuration, server, and networking packages installed. OpenLX Linux Desktop Edge 1.0 comes on one CD, and while OpenLX Linux Enterprise Edge 1.0 takes six. Both were released in November 2006, and come with a choice of desktops. There's also an older version (2005), OpenLX Version 11, which is an Enterprise version, weighing in at 5 CDs. All these older versions cost 200 rupees, or a little over $5.
The OpenLX Edge 2.0 distribution is based on Fedora Core, but neither distro nor Web site says which one, and I was unable to contact the developers. It's probably Core 6, judging from some of its dated apps. It uses Fedora's familiar installer, Anaconda, without much modification. Though it finished without problems, it appeared to hang because of a stuck progress bar. The distro's specified minimum hardware requirement of a Pentium 4 processor is not mentioned on either the distribution packaging or the documentation, but only on the KalCulate Web site, which led me to begin testing it on an underpowered machine before I turned to an Acer Aspire 5052 with an AMD Turion 64x2 processor and 512MB of RAM.
OpenLX Edge 2.0 uses KDE 3.5 and has the option of GNOME or the lighter desktops. It was created to be a GNU/Linux suited for Indian language speakers, so OpenLX comes with the SCIM (Smart Common Input Method) utility installed even in KDE, which enables the use of many Indian languages, such as Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu. Unfortunately, SCIM froze repeatedly on both the desktop and the laptop.
The wealth of applications found on OpenLX is rarely seen on the same system by default. For instance, the multimedia players Amarok, Audacious, Kaffeine, Noatun, MPlayer, Kaboodle, JuK, and Xine Player are all included. Unfortunately, the bundled applications are old versions. For instance, the OpenOffice.org office suite is present, but it's version 2.3. There's Evolution 2.8.0 (released in 2006) for personal information management, comprising email, calendar, task list management, and address book. And the dated Firefox 1.5 is the Web browser.
Overall the application menus are all stacked high. There's a heap of KDE and GNOME games, a large mix of administration apps from both KDE and GNOME desktops, and also eye candy, with the inclusion of the Beryl 3-D desktop and the desktop widget app Superkaramba.
OpenLX also includes Wine, the Windows emulator, and configures it to launch with a right-click. The inclusion of Wine means that business users can migrate Windows applications to GNU/Linux. Wine worked fine in the test. It properly installed and ran a Windows-based CD-ripping application.
Once you've installed OpenLX, you can start KalCulate from the KDE Office menu. New users can peruse KalCulate's manual, a PDF file placed on the desktop. It's comprehensive and well-written, with illustrations. The help option available through the app itself is also detailed and lucid.
As for the app itself, it maintains full accounts and generates purchase, sales, goods receipt, and other advice notes, invoices such as for purchase and sales receipts, and a slew of reports: 16 financial reports, 18 inventory reports, and another screenful of other reports, such as for tax and depreciation. KalCulate also generates Schedule VI balance sheets, which are mandatory for corporates in India, and claims to be ready for value-added tax (VAT) too. A full folio of accounts comes preconfigured in KalCulate. You can create uers with varying rights to access each account; passwords enforce these rights.
KalCulate is simple to use. In my test it generated a pleasant-looking profit statement and balance sheet; but it overflowed its page margins in the PDF export, yielding a column of figures cropped out from the right side of the page. Only trial balances seem to enjoy appropriate pagination.
KalCulate also has a sync feature designed to let branch offices keep their accounts in tune with head offices. This is not an automatic live or real-time feature: KalCulate creates "export sync" files instead, which must be manually imported into the head office accounts after the branch office sends them on removable media or via email.
OpenLX says KalCulate is extensible, and that it will provide APIs to users interested in doing so.
Together, OpenLX and KalCulate are average, not spectacular. Yes, KalCulate brings rare accounting functionality to the GNU/Linux desktop and has plenty of features, but it has its rough edges. The inclusion of a bagful of music players and applications is bemusing and counterproductive; a new user could be intimidated by all the clutter. Wine, though, is a welcome inclusion.
OpenLX seems to make sense only for companies migrating to GNU/Linux for practical reasons such as cost-efficiency and security and that have paid license fees for their Windows and accounting software. In developing countries, most small firms use pirated software, so their software costs are already low -- that is, zero -- so the majority would not consider paying license fees for an accounting app such as KalCulate when they could use pirated copies of something more widely used.
OpenLX makes sense for companies which would feel the pinch from legitimately obtained proprietary software. There, KalCulate can compete only on the issue of lower price.
Suhit Kelkar is a freelance journalist in Mumbai, India. He has covered civic affairs, science, and technology for Mumbai-based publications including the Times of India and the Indian Express. He is also a Linux addict who changes his distro each month.