- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

The Oct. 4 announcement that Sun Microsystems and Google would collaborate in offering Google’s toolbar, which gives users a handy desktop gateway to Web search and services, was accompanied by speculation of a possible joint move in the office applications arena. Such a move would finally deliver a serious challenge to Microsoft Office, the widely popular software suite that some users consider to be hugely expensive compared with lower-cost alternatives such as Sun’s StarOffice.

Although analysts such as Gartner Group say the talk is much ado about very little, there’s another reason to take a look at StarOffice afresh. In August, Sun introduced StarOffice 8, which the company says is more compatible with you-know-who’s product, not to mention less expensive. You can download the product from Sun for $70, while companies buying multiple copies can pay as little as $35 each, albeit in large quantities.

Whatever the price, StarOffice costs a lot less than what Microsoft charges for its Office software. Microsoft charges $149 for a copy of Office for noncommercial use. The cheapest “new user” price for commercial use is $399 — more than five times the single-user price for StarOffice.

On many levels, Sun’s claim to operational compatibility with Microsoft Office seems to ring true. Users of Microsoft Office will likely fall into most StarOffice applications easily. I’m using StarOffice Writer, the word processor, to write these words and it’s behaving much like Microsoft Word. I can have my document at a “text width” view for typing, and that makes 12-point Times Roman large enough to read comfortably on a 17-inch PC display.

Writer’s operation is straightforward in most instances. It was easy to start and create a new document. The program’s help system isn’t too obtrusive, although the word-completion feature can grate a bit, although it does not override one’s typing.

StarOffice Calc is also spiffed up for this new release, with larger cell sizes for spreadsheets, which should make it easier to import large Microsoft Excel files. At the same time, the program can save its work as an Excel file, so you can swap data with those using the other program. The same interoperability is said to hold for Microsoft’s Word and PowerPoint applications and their StarOffice equals, Writer and Impress.

Impress, at first glance, is a very capable presentation graphics program. It’s not difficult to imagine using it for corporate meetings with no fear of embarrassment. Impress’ templates and structure are on a par with PowerPoint, at least, and some of the innovations, such as specifying transition styles and speeds during the setup of a new file, are quite nice.

Untested in this initial review were the drawing and database components, Draw and Base. These seem usable, but may not be as vital to some users as they are to others. It should be noted that Base is a flat-file database that can hook into external, relational databases housed on larger computers. Those who need that function will understand and value it.

There is one continuing drawback to StarOffice, and that is the lack of an alternative to Microsoft Outlook, the personal information manager/e-mail client that is nearly ubiquitous in corporate life.

Once Sun clears up the e-mail issue, StarOffice might be an even more viable Microsoft Office alternative.

Details on StarOffice can be found at https://www.sun.com/ software/star/staroffice/index.jsp

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