StarOffice: Bigger, not necessarily better

StarOffice is free, but it's not perfect, still, as the only tool natively available on Linux that nicely read a whole bunch of Microsoft file formats, many will continue to use it while keeping alive the hope of better open source word processors.

Judging just by the number of lines of code, Sun's releasing of (most of) StarOffice under open source licensing is certainly the most massive project of its kind, ever.

The code -- released this past Friday (the 13th), just as Sun predicted back in July -- is now out in the open. You can download and play with it, either under the GNU Public License or another license crafted to allow Sun and others to make proprietary offshoots.

Mainstreaming the technical
The publicly available source code is now called OpenOffice. Think of it this way: OpenOffice is to StarOffice what Mozilla is to Communicator. Indeed, there are many parallels between OpenOffice and the Mozilla browser project, in the ways that the two companies (Sun and Netscape, respectively) grapple with the challenges of bringing proprietary code through the open source world.

Thankfully, among the parallels there's one important difference: the code made available at the beginning of the OpenOffice project actually produces a binary that runs. By comparison, Mozilla.org delivered a blob of uncompilable code that required almost a total re-write and still isn't out of beta 18 months later.

Mind you, just because you can get the source code to OpenOffice, doesn't necessarily mean you're going to want it. The sheer volume of the code requires more than three gigabytes of hard disk space in which to build, and compiles have been reported to take more than 20 hours to complete. I'm no programmer, and I have better things to do with 20 hours. So I just downloaded the binaries, which have worked OK for me so far, though I haven't exactly done any stress-testing.

So what we have in OpenOffice at this time is some usable software (version 6.05) that the website says is alpha-quality code, which means that the maintainers of OpenOffice have some work ahead of them. It's just as well that the maintainers are currently all Sun staff, since it's going to take the rest of the world quite some time to get its head around all those million lines of OpenOffice source code. Apparently most of the comments in the code are in German, reflecting StarOffice's roots from before it was purchased by Sun last November. This further slows the code examination process for most people who live outside Germany and Austria.

Software in transition
Now, I admit, I do use StarOffice. Well, at least I try. The documentation that came with the 5.2 download was pretty ratty. At the StarOffice website, the closest thing I could find to a tutorial was a PDF-format "reviewer's guide" -- and it's not that good either. I'll be having a look soon at what I hope to be reasonable third party books. But competent documentation is something I certainly miss as I leave WordPerfect.

There are also some StarOffice features that I'm not particularly fond of and that I expect to find repeated in OpenOffice. But I'll keep using StarOffice, and will likely move to OpenOffice once it's stable, since they're the only tools natively available on Linux that nicely read a whole bunch of proprietary Microsoft file formats. As most of you probably know, if you can't read documents produced by Microsoft software, there's a lot of the world whose communications you can't read. And StarOffice, for all its warts, is capable of reading and writing these files. Unfortunately -- and this is extremely irritating to someone trying to switch -- StarOffice (and OpenOffice) won't read WordPerfect files.

Yet I don't expect I'll be using StarOffice, or even post-alpha versions of OpenOffice, for a very long time. I see, not far away on the Linux apps horizon, other open source word processors that will have the features I need without the bloat -- or the heavy-handed politics.

Yeah, politics. Nasty politics, and plenty of it. But you'll need to wait to hear more about about that...

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