StarOffice shaping up as true Office alternative

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.

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