StarOffice 8 goes beta

But is Sun's productivity suite slowing down the development of OpenOffice.org?

Sun released a beta version of office productivity application StarOffice 8 on Thursday, which it says provides improved compatibility with Microsoft Office files and a new database front-end tool.

StarOffice already allows users to open and save Microsoft Office files, but a lack of full interoperability has caused problems for users migrating from MS Office. Sun claims that StarOffice 8 "significantly improves" the compatability between StarOffice and MS Office files, according to a PDF available on Sun's Web site.

Improved interoperability with MS Office is also one of the main features of OpenOffice.org (OOo) 2.0, the upcoming release of the open source application on which StarOffice is based. The beta of OOo 2.0 was released in December 2004.

The database front-end tool in StarOffice, StarOffice Base, has been "totally re-designed" to make it easier for users to create forms, queries and reports, according to Sun. Stephen O'Grady, senior analyst at RedMonk, said the database is a useful feature in StarOffice and is likely to compete with Microsoft Access.

"The most interesting new element is the database -- currently Microsoft Access has little or no competition in the office productivity space," said O'Grady. "With StarOffice Base [in version 8] Sun is addressing that market. As Microsoft builds out Office as a development platform local client databases become even more important."

An improved version of Base is also included in OOo 2.0.

The final versions of StarOffice 8 and OOo 2.0 are expected in mid-2005.

The OOo project began in October 2000 when Sun released the source code of StarOffice. OOo developer Michael Meeks said on Friday that Sun does a lot of valuable work on the open source application, but claimed the company has too much control over the direction and release schedule of OpenOffice.org as it employs many developers working on OpenOffice.org.

At present, major releases of OpenOffice.org are scheduled to launch at around the same time as releases of StarOffice. Versions 7 and 6 of StarOffice were in November 2003 and May 2002 respectively, while OOo 1.1 and 1.0 -- the versions on which StarOffice were based -- were released in October 2003 and May 2002 respectively.

Meeks said that the OOo project needs to be run more independently from StarOffice, to allow development to take place faster.

"The issue is that you write a new feature, such as a form import, but because you only release every 18 months, it could be 18 months before you see it," said Meeks. "We want to get features to users faster and build momentum."

It can also be difficult recruiting developers from the open source community as they will not see their work for a long time. "People don't see progress and it depresses them," said Meeks.

But Meeks did offer some hope to those who want this issue resolved in the near future: "Sun executives seem to realise it's a problem," he said.

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