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"A Watershed Event for Open Source Office Suites": Linux.SYS-CON.com Reviews StarOffice 8

Open source office suite to rival Microsoft Office

On September 27, Sun released StarOffice 8, their cross-platform office suite, which they believe to be the best alternative to the business standard, Microsoft Office. This new product release along with the release of OpenOffice.org 2.0, on October 20, was a watershed event for open source office suites. With a host of new features and increased functionality, both suites have never before offered such a robust and feasible alternative to the undisputed productivity suite leader, Microsoft Office. Sun Microsystems has been developing the product since their acquisition of Star Division, the previous maker of StarOffice, in August of 1999. For the first time in its history, StarOffice (and OpenOffice.org) has the best chance to convert millions of Microsoft Office users as a result of the latest crop of improvements.

StarOffice shares much of its code with the community office suite, OpenOffice.org, but there are a number of value-added features included with StarOffice including a Microsoft Office macro converter, administrative tools, clipart, and fonts, not to mention installation support. Users of StarOffice 7 will find a new presentation interface, a mail-merge wizard, and database wizards. Sun's contention is that this release eases the learning curve and makes it easier for end users to transition from Microsoft Office, complemented by better document compatibility for Microsoft Office file formats. StarOffice supports Windows, Linux, and Sun Solaris so users can share documents easily despite their desktop OS. They can also become familiar with StarOffice on Windows before moving to Linux on the desktop. Even though it doesn't enjoy the same market share as Microsoft Office, Sun cites a growing installed base that includes agreements with 169,000 schools covering 70 million K-12 students and 214 million students in universities throughout the world. In addition to their download and direct sales, StarOffice will also shift to a new business model, publishing to e-tail and retail outlets in North America, select European countries, and Japan. (The new model is active no in Roth merica, Europe and Japan.)

The New Cast of Characters
The new StarOffice 8 includes some updates to existing programs like Writer and Calc but also boasts the overhaul of StarOffice 8 Base (Base has existed in previous versions of StarOffice so it's not being added in v.8). In addition to the core applications, there has been much work done to add supporting tools such as StarOffice Enterprise Tools and the Macro Migration Wizard that can automatically import Microsoft Office macros (one of the most inhibiting factors for alternative office suite adoption). While the wizard is an improvement, it's not a perfect solution with test success rates hovering around 60%. There is also a Professional Analysis Wizard that can help mitigate the risk of an organization's movements from one suite to another. Besides usability Sun boasts the improvement of security features like Digital Signatures and LDAP authentication over SSL to allow safer access of documents.

The core programs that make up StarOffice are just what you expect for word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and database.

StarOffice Writer
Writer is the word processing application included with StarOffice 8 and it includes the ability to create documents, define styles, and author complex documents. The new mail merge wizard can create both hard copies of letters as well as e-mail merge. Writer also includes tools to make documents portable across platforms and users. The standard formats for all Writer documents is the OASIS OpenDocument format but Writer can also open and edit Microsoft Word documents, import WordPerfect documents, and, to be sure that a document is viewable in the way it was originally intended, export it to Portable Document Format (PDF) (see Figure 1).

StarOffice Calc
StarOffice Calc is the spreadsheet component of StarOffice 8 and has all the tools you need to calculate and analyze data. Calc also includes the DataPilot feature that in Microsoft Excel you might know as PivotTables. Like the word processing program, you can import other file formats including Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel. Past versions of Calc had a limit on the number of rows per sheet but in version 8 it has been increased to match Microsoft Excel's 65,356 rows.

StarOffice Impress
Impress is the presentation authoring tool and viewer that most closely resembles Microsoft PowerPoint or Lotus Freelance. Impress can also export files into a flash SWF for embedding and automating them into Web pages. On top of that there are a number of tools to author polished presentations including the StarOffice FontWork (which is fully MS WordArt compatible). FontWork can be used to author both 2D and 3D fonts with artistic flourishes like shading and color fill options.

StarOffice Base
One of the biggest changes in the new StarOffice suite is the significant enhancement of the database application front end simply known as Base. Base allows you to access 11 different database formats including MySQL, ODBC, Oracle JDBC, spreadsheets, dBase, and common address contact managers (see Figure 2).

If you want a highly functional office suite that has good breadth of features that interoperates well with Microsoft documents, StarOffice 8 fits the bill (as does OpenOffice.org). These applications are very stable and have a wide variety of features to easily create robust documents.

Why StarOffice 8 Might Be Your Next Office Suite
StarOffice product manager, Iyer Venkatesan, says that the costs of and licensing terms for most organizations' existing office suites are out of control. He also claims that most users who are familiar with Microsoft Office will find StarOffice just as intuitive for them. Venkatesan states that, "Our position is that we are the clear alternative to Microsoft Office." One of the main reasons that Sun and others cite this new breed of open source software as a potential Microsoft office killer is cost of acquisition. Sun cites an 80% lower purchase price with less restrictive licensing terms. Besides costs and licensing, they also have the advantage of the OASIS (www.oasis-open.org) approved OpenDocument XML file format. OpenDoucment is a new standard for StarOffice documents but it's still backward-compatible with previous versions of StarOffice while previous versions of StarOffice can read and write StarOffice files by virtue of a patch. The open format is important because it makes it easier to exchange data from documents with other systems and software products rather than having to reverse-engineer the compatibility as other office suites have had to do with Microsoft Office. Besides their desire to expand their market, Sun claims tight desktop integration, ease of use, and low retraining costs for MS Office users.

When it comes to proclaiming what users might find more appealing in StarOffice compared with Microsoft Office, there is not a whole lot of difference in my opinion. The products are very similar and they serve the task of creating and editing documents. There are a few things that I find to be very handy when using StarOffice. The first benefit is the ability to create PDFs, which has been a longtime favored feature of OpenOffice.org and StarOffice. In addition, I have better luck using the formatting and styles in the open source software suites as opposed to Microsoft Office, where applying styles can be cumbersome and can exhibit unexpected behavior. For example, when using Microsoft Word I often find styles are automatically updated and applied in unexpected ways.

Summary
It's humorous to note that the measure of StarOffice and other office suites competing with Microsoft Office are often referred to as being good enough when their competition, the bombastic Microsoft Office, is possibly one of the most complained about but still widely used software packages. Time and time again when I am confronted with the question of whether an established Microsoft Office user will find StarOffice or its gratis cousin OpenOffice.org to be an adequate replacement, the question is almost always phrased the same way. That's why I feel without restriction that both alternatives are definitely good enough. The only apprehension I have is not with its worthiness as an office suite but with its interoperability with legacy documents. This may change as newer versions of Microsoft Office will be supporting XML document formats that might ease the exchange between the two office suites.

Perhaps the biggest attention getter when it comes to comparing StarOffice 8 with Microsoft Office is the price. Searching the Web I found prices for Microsoft Office 2003 Professional ranging around $499 and Microsoft Office 2003 Standard at around $369 from national retailers, while the downloadable version of StarOffice 8 was $69.95 directly from Sun. However, I don't look at price on its own; I look at value and I think that's what StarOffice really delivers: a very functional feature-packed productivity suite at a reasonable price. I personally have been using OpenOffice.org and StarOffice for many years and find that for most tasks they do the job just as well or better than Microsoft Office. If you are looking to break the expensive upgrade cycle for Microsoft Office without sacrificing functionality, StarOffice or OpenOffice.org is the best choice I can recommend, especially for the Linux user.

Specs

Computer and processor:
Personal computer with a Pentium compatible Processor (Pentium III or Athlon recommended)

Memory:
128 MB of RAM (256 MB recommended)

Hard disk:
380 MB available hard disk space

Drive:
CD-ROM or DVD drive

Display:
800 x 600 with 256 colors
(higher resolution recommended)

Operating System:
Linux kernel version 2.4 or higher, glibc2 version 2.2.4 or higher

Other:
Gnome 2.6 or higher required for support of assistive technology tools (AT tools) via Java accessibility support. StarOffice cannot be installed on a (V)FAT partition, since FAT file systems do not support the creation of symbolic links

Internet Connection:
Internet functionality requires dial-up or broadband Internet access (provided separately); local or long-distance charges may apply

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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Most Recent Comments
Seymour 01/13/06 01:34:43 PM EST

I own StarOffice 7 for Windows and was shocked that when StarOffice 8 came out that there were no upgrade editions at special prices. (To be fair, you can buy it at Amazon for about $49.99 and students, teachers, researchers, and faculty can download for free from Sun.) Not willing to double my investment, I went to OpenOffice.org 2.0 instead! Something to keep in mind before you buy!

I've been happy except for Impress' compatibility with PowerPoint and choppy slide transition animation.

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