Sun Microsystems Inc.s StarOffice may not be ready to totally displace Microsoft Office in the enterprise, but eWEEK Labs tests of the StarOffice 6 beta show that the suite has the stuff to at least loosen Microsoft Corp.s iron grip on the office productivity market.
Suns StarOffice has the interface familiarity and file format compatibility that will enable it to peacefully coexist with Microsofts Office. And its cross-platform support and ingenious use of XML (Extensible Markup Language) will pay dividends in future, more wide-scale deployments.
New features aside, the price of StarOffice—free—should be enough to give pause to sites weighing their software options in the context of Microsofts potentially costly and entangling new licensing schemes.
We recommend that IT administrators download the StarOffice 6 beta and evaluate for themselves how well the suite works with the spreadsheet, word processing and presentation files in use in their organizations. (StarOffice can be downloaded from www.sun.com/software/star/staroffice/6.0beta/get.html.)
StarOffice 6.0 will run on Microsoft Windows 9x, Millennium Edition, NT, 2000 and XP. StarOffice also supports Linux kernel Version 2.2.13 or higher and Solaris 7 or better, and herein lies a major competitive advantage, particularly for sites supporting Sun or Linux workstations for computer-aided design or software development tasks.
However, StarOffice continues to lack support for the Macintosh, which is likely the most frequently found non-Windows operating system on corporate desktops, and a platform that Microsoft Office does serve. Although Sun has confirmed that it will not release a Macintosh version of the suite, a Macintosh port of OpenOffice—the Sun-sponsored, open-source version of StarOffice—is in the works.
XML opens new doors
The most promising part of StarOffice is its new XML-based file format. The format, which is openly documented and freely available under the GNU Public License, consists of a set of XML files that together lay out the content, layout, metadata, and embedded graphics and objects of an office document.
The XML file sets that make up a StarOffice document (one of our test documents consisted of five such files) are contained within a single compressed file. StarOffice uses the popular ZIP compression form, so with a standard ZIP program and a text editor, users can see exactly what their documents contain. In addition to insulating firms from future changes to proprietary Microsoft file formats, a set of open file formats will enable software developers to work with productivity files in ways not now possible.
StarOffices Writer, Calc and Impress applications represent, respectively, the suites word processing, spreadsheet and presentation offerings. In compatibility tests, StarOffice faithfully rendered the formatting, styles and calculations from the Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents and templates that we use at eWEEK.
However, our toolbar macros failed to come across, and Writer replaced Words Smart Quotes and ellipses with the letter "z." We hope that by its final version, due in the first half of next year, StarOffice will have solved the Smart Quote problem, but we expect that sites will have to rewrite toolbar macros for StarOffice.
We found that Writer was much faster than Word when working with very large documents. For example, a 3MB file containing the text of "War and Peace" choked Word 2002 but quickly opened and was ready to edit in Writer.
Perhaps the most roundly maligned element of previous StarOffice iterations was the integrated desktop, which was crudely designed and imposed significant performance overhead. StarOffice 6 behaves itself much better, with applications that appear and operate individually.
This new design modesty also extends to the way that the Sun suite handles file saving. As with other word processors, StarOffices Writer by default saves documents in its own file format (.SXW). However, Writer includes the option for users to save documents in Microsoft Word format by default, thereby reducing confusion for users in mixed Word/Writer environments. In our tests, this setting didnt work, but we expect it to be ironed out in the final release.