StarOffice shaping up as true Office alternative

With popular corporate apps, Microsoft Office compatibility, and an unbeatable price, the beta of StarOffice 6.0 shows that Sun's free office suite is looking more and more like a viable alternative to Office for enterprises
Written by Michael P. Deignan, Contributor

With IT managers angered by Microsoft's new software licensing plan for Windows and Office XP, many are seeking a viable, affordable alternative to the Microsoft Office suite. One suite that shows enterprise potential at an unbeatable price is Sun Microsystems' free StarOffice.

The beta of StarOffice 6.0, released in early October (the full release version is due early next year), boasts many improvements and enhancements--including the adoption of XML file formats--over the current StarOffice 5.2 release. The beta still provides an excellent set of core features: StarOffice Writer for word processing, the StarOffice Calc spreadsheet, the StarOffice Impress presentation software, and StarOffice Draw for graphics manipulation and special effects. For database functionality similar to that in Microsoft Access, a single-user version of the Adabas database can be licensed separately.

In a world dominated by Microsoft Office, file compatibility with Office is a requirement of any alternative office suite. During our testing, we found virtually no incompatibility with our existing Microsoft Office files. We imported several Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files into their respective StarOffice 6.0 applications. In all cases, the files imported correctly. Saving StarOffice files in Microsoft Office formats did prove somewhat troublesome. Although the StarOffice Writer and Calc documents we exported functioned correctly in their Microsoft applications, Impress crashed when we tried to export Impress presentations to the PowerPoint format--but that may be a beta-related problem.

Once we downloaded the 95MB Windows distribution, installing the beta software on our Windows 98-based Dell Optiplex GX1 system was smooth. (The distribution is also available as several smaller files for users with limited bandwidth connections.) We also downloaded a 69-page Setup Guide, but found we didn't need it. A network installation procedure outlined in the documentation lets network administrators install a central version of the product, which can then be installed on individual computers on a local network. During testing, we relied on the extensive and well-organized online help.

Our first impression of the product was extremely favorable. Gone is the annoying "StarOffice Desktop" integrated office desktop environment that in previous versions essentially took over the Windows desktop. Instead, as with Microsoft Office, each StarOffice 6.0 application is launched independently. Even though the applications are separate, they still integrate with one another so objects created in one StarOffice application can be inserted into other StarOffice applications. Furthermore, the developers have revamped the user interface by streamlining dialog boxes and making the suite more intuitive to use.

Previous users of StarOffice will have no problems using this new release. Users of Microsoft Office applications will experience only a slight learning curve, as StarOffice menus are structured similarly to those in Microsoft Office. In addition, most StarOffice features use names similar to those in Office, with a few minor differences. For example, revision marks in Microsoft Word are referred to as "changes" in StarOffice.

StarOffice Writer offers virtually every word-processing feature found in Microsoft Office. Users can insert tables, structure their documents into various layouts (such as multicolumn formats), insert objects from other applications, and even allow multiuser collaboration on a document. Users can manually spell-check their documents or have the software do so automatically as documents are typed; however, no grammar-checking feature is in this version of StarOffice. Documents can be broken into sections, and each section can be password-protected. When multiple users collaborate on a document, the software can track changes and comments made by each user. Each of the features we tested correctly migrated to and from Microsoft Word.

The Calc spreadsheet component is equally impressive. Calc correctly imported and exported all the data in a complicated Excel spreadsheet that contained numerous sheets, computations, and embedded charts. This version of Calc supports more financial functions, such as MIRR (modified internal rate of return) and ISPMT (interest of a credit or investment with constant redemption rates--defined as "returns the straight-loan payment interest" in Excel), and allows users to insert data from external sources. For creating graphs, a series of screens presented by a wizard helps users through a process that will be familiar to Excel users.

The Impress presentation component is on a par with PowerPoint. As with PowerPoint, Impress presentations work on a "slide" basis, and allow various transition effects from one slide to the next. Users can insert graphics, text, and other objects into the presentation. For each slide, the software can store lecturer notes that will display in "Notes view" or when the slides are printed. Impress correctly imported an extensive (50-slide) PowerPoint presentation, complete with notes and transition effects.

One feature in StarOffice 6.0 that shows great promise is the adoption of XML file formats to store files when saved natively. Support for the XML format, an open standard, allows StarOffice users greater portability of their files from platform to platform and a high degree of interoperability with any other software that supports XML. Since many browsers support XML, StarOffice documents can be viewed using a Web browser locally or over the Internet. StarOffice 6.0 will also compress the XML files it saves, resulting in significantly reduced file sizes. Furthermore, the XML file format supports 128-bit encryption for users who want to password-protect their files.

StarOffice 6.0 represents a major overhaul of its predecessor. The software's look-and-feel and functionality exemplify what a user would expect from a high-end commercial application costing several-hundred-dollars per seat. At this time, Sun does not recommend that corporate users utilize StarOffice 6.0 in production environments. However, IT managers looking for a cost-effective alternative to Microsoft Office would be well-served to start exploring and testing StarOffice's features.

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