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StarOffice 8: Office Killer?

Alternatives to Microsoft Office

  • March 6, 2006
  • By Martin C. Brown

I've been using word processors--starting with Wordstar--for twenty years, the last eight of those as a professional writer. Having a decent word processor goes a long way to making the writing process easier. Looking beyond the word processor in a typical office environment it is not difficult to imagine the requirements for a spreadsheet (for planning, data manipulation, accounts), a presentation package and a simple database application.

Together these applications make an office suite. There are many solutions available, including open source offerings like OpenOffice.org and KOffice and commercial offerings like Lotus SmartSuite and Microsoft Office. But in a business environment you may want a solution that is based on free software (because you like the principles), but has the backup and support you would expect from a commercial solution. In the process you will almost want to retain data compatibility with your clients and suppliers and your existing base of documents and information.

The suite against which all suites are measured is Microsoft Office. There's good reason for this. Microsoft Office is both the market leader and one of the oldest application suites on the market. It is also, of course, used on the market leading operating system (Windows), so it is inevitable that it is going to be widely used among the high proportion of businesses that use Windows.

Microsoft Office is though not the ultimate in such solutions, and the recent rise in open source software, and particularly Linux, has garnered a lot of interest in more open and transparent solutions. The Microsoft document format has often been an issue of contention with developers. You have to be able to read Office documents to remain compatible, but information about the file format used by Microsoft is not always enough to provide true compatibility between Office and competing applications.

The problem with the proprietary approach of Office is that it really means if you want to communicate using Office documents then you need to use Office applications. Unless you have Windows (or Mac OS X) this is not a choice you can make. The document compatibility issue came to a head when Massachusetts State declared their decision to only support documents based on open standards.

Open document standards (through the OpenDocument Format (ODF)) mean that exchanging documents and information between applications should be easier. That engenders choice, and means that you can use the application that you want on your choice of platform and environment, while retaining the ability to use and share documents based on the OpenDocument standard.

A number of companies and applications have already stated that they will support the ODF format, some natively (i.e., ODF will be the default format, as in StarOffice 8) and some will support ODF as an available exchange format. At the time of writing (Dec 2005) Microsoft have not yet embraced the ODF standard and continue to push forward with their own XML-based format.

StarOffice from Sun Microsystems is not open source, but Sun and StarOffice do support the OpenDocument standard. Sun, in fact, sponsors both the OpenDocument standard (which is handled by OASIS) and the development of OpenOffice.org, an open source office suite. StarOffice is based on the OpenOffice.org code, with some additions specially designed for enterprise customers.

I've been using StarOffice 8 since it was released in September 2005, for a variety of different projects, from book chapters to articles and letters and accounts and presentations. StarOffice incorporates five components, called StarOffice Writer, StarOffice Calc, StarOffice Impress (a presentation package), StarOffice Base and StarOffice Draw. This article is a combination of a review of the functionality and my own experiences of using StarOffice 8 for day-to-day tasks.

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