StarOffice 8—the latest version of Sun Microsystems Inc.s inexpensive, cross-platform office productivity suite—stands up better than ever next to Microsoft Corp.s market-leading Office in terms of features, extensibility and compatibility.
StarOffice 8— the latest version of Sun Microsystems Inc.s inexpensive, cross-platform office productivity suite—stands up better than ever next to Microsoft Corp.s market-leading Office in terms of features, extensibility and compatibility.
In eWeek Labs tests of StarOffice 8, we were pleased with the suites word processing (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation (Impress) and database (Base) functions. In addition, we experienced generally good results opening and creating Microsoft Office-formatted documents with StarOffice.
However, whether StarOffice 8 can succeed as a wholesale or partial replacement for Microsoft Office will depend on the organization thinking about making the switch.
Several improvements in StarOffice 8 are aimed directly at improving compatibility with Microsoft Office-formatted documents, but converting complex documents between the two suites formats will in some cases require tweaking to preserve document appearance.
In addition, while StarOffice 8 can be extended through macros and scripting, much like Microsoft Office can, these extensions wont migrate to Microsoft Office without being rewritten. However, StarOffice ships with a Macro Migration wizard that will aid in the migration of Microsoft Visual Basic macros to the StarOffice Basic macro language. Theres also a Document Analysis wizard that helps determine where trouble spots might lie in the transition to a StarOffice format.
One main reason for considering the potentially tricky migration from Office to StarOffice in all or part of an organization is the significantly lower per-user license costs for the Sun suite—$70 for a downloadable version of the product, compared with about $500 for Microsoft Office Professional Edition.
StarOffices wholly open-source sibling, OpenOffice.org, is available free of charge, comes bundled with most Linux distributions and is completely compatible with StarOffice. A special report focusing on migration issues and OpenOffice.org 2.0 will appear in a forthcoming issue of eWEEK.
But perhaps just as important as licensing costs is cross-platform support, and StarOffice clearly beats Microsoft Office here, running on Windows-, Linux- and Solaris-based systems. And through OpenOffice.org and OpenOffice.org derivatives such as NeoOffice/J, support for StarOffice 8s formats and scripting framework extends to Mac OS X and FreeBSD, with other ports in progress.
While a move to StarOffice or OpenOffice.org neednt accompany a migration away from Windows, these suites can pave the way to such a move in the future–a measure of flexibility that one cant expect from Microsoft and Office.
Speaking of flexibility, StarOffice 8 ships with a new native file format —the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications, also known as OpenDocument—which covers text, spreadsheet, chart and graphical documents. OpenDocument is intended to allow for diversity among office suite applications without requiring format importers and exporters and the compatibility issues that often accompany them.
For example, KOffice, the office suite that ships as part of the K Desktop Environment, includes OpenDocument as a format option, and the KDE Project has announced that OpenDocument will become the default format for KOffice in a future release. The AbiWord word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet applications–two more open-source, cross-platform office productivity options–do not support OpenDocument now, but both projects plan to add this support in upcoming releases.
The file formats from previous versions of StarOffice are still present in this latest release. This will be important for organizations running earlier versions of StarOffice, which wont open OpenDocument documents. Companies that wish to use the new format without paying for the StarOffice upgrade can use OpenOffice.org 2.0, which also creates and opens OpenDocument files, or OpenOffice.org 1.1.5, which can read but not write to the new format.
Compatibility with Office
A number of new features in StarOffice 8 relate to better compatibility with Microsoft Office-formatted documents. StarOffice can now open password-protected Word and Excel documents.
In previous versions, StarOffices Writer and Calc applications wouldnt open these documents at all, a pretty big collaboration roadblock. However, Word 2003s document protection feature–which can prevent certain changes within a document, such as style changes in specified blocks of text–doesnt work in StarOffice 8. In our tests, Writer simply ignored the restrictions, as do earlier versions of Word.
StarOffices Writer now matches Words support for nested tables–in earlier StarOffice versions, Writer wouldnt render tables situated within other tables at all.
While StarOffice 8 generally does a good job of creating and consuming Office-formatted documents, we encountered small inconsistencies during our testing that required tweaks to preserve the appearance of the documents we imported.
For instance, in one of the Word documents with which we tested, some of the numbers in a numbered list of elements rendered with mismatched fonts when we opened it in StarOffices Writer. This may not seem like a big deal, but this sort of inconsistency can be maddening to track down and eliminate for collaborators using a mixture of StarOffice and Microsoft Office programs.
StarOffice users who need to ensure that their documents render appropriately for those who dont use StarOffice or OpenOffice.org can take advantage of the suites PDF export feature, which has been improved in StarOffice 8 to preserve document hyperlinks, tables of contents and notes in the PDFs it creates.
In previous versions of StarOffice, the suites constituent applications featured fairly good database integration options and came bundled with the back-end database component Adabas D. However, the suite lacked an approachable front end that would provide easy access and the ability to organize these capabilities.
New in StarOffice 8 is such a database front end, called Base, with which we could link up to a range of existing data sources, including dBASE, Access, MySQL, LDAP, Mozilla, Thunderbird, Outlook and Windows, as well as to data sources accessible through ODBC or JDBC (Java Database Connectivity) drivers.
StarOffice still comes with the Adabas D database, but the suites chief native data source option is now the Java-based HSQLDB relational database engine. HSQLDB is open source, which means it will also ship with OpenOffice.org 2.0, whereas Adabas D did not. We found it fairly easy to build data stores using Base, which offers wizards for speeding the creation of database tables, forms, queries and reports.
Impress, Calc, Writer get
StarOffices answer to Microsofts PowerPoint, Impress, has gotten an interface overhaul in this release. Impress now sports slide and task panes, which made it easier for us to navigate among the slides in our test presentations and to access Impress sample layout, animation and slide transition options.
StarOffice 8s Calc spreadsheet application includes improvements to the DataPilot tool, a feature for analyzing spreadsheets in interactive tables that corresponds to the Pivot Tables in Microsofts Excel. DataPilot tables can now include more field types, as well as more sorting, grouping and display options, all of which should make Calc a more palatable alternative for users coming from Excel.
Calc also now boasts a doubled row limit, up to the same 65,536-line limit that applies to Excel spreadsheets.
StarOffices Writer application appears to have seen the least change since the last version of the suite, but we noticed the addition of a format paintbrush tool, which enabled us to copy formatting information from one chunk of text to another.
Also of benefit to Writer users is StarOffice 8s improved Mail Merge wizard, which we found much easier to use than in previous versions, particularly when we didnt already have a data source set up from which to pull merged data.
We also noted the addition of a keyboard shortcut for pasting text into Writer documents without formatting, something we found helpful when ferrying pieces of text from Web pages or other word processing documents.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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KDE Projects KOffice 1.4.1 For users of Linux and other KDE-supported platforms, KOffice offers broad functionality and excellent desktop integration (www.koffice.org)
Microsoft Office 2003 and earlier The file formats exclusive to Microsofts market-leading Office suite are a de facto standard, giving Office a definite edge (www.microsoft.com)
OpenOffice.org Projects OpenOffice.org 2.0 The wholly open-source sibling of StarOffice typically offers tighter integration with Linux distributions (www.openoffice.org)