StarOffice 6.0 bridges the gap with Microsoft Office

Sun Microsystems Inc. is shipping StarOffice 6.0, a major upgrade of its low-cost, multiplatform suite. It's been a long time coming'the beta has been downloadable since October'but the wait seems worth it.

Experienced StarOffice users should be pleased with the slew of new, if minor, features and enhancements. Newbies will, after climbing the learning curve, find it a comfortable alternative to Microsoft Office.

The biggest news is probably the new XML-based StarOffice file format, which should better maintain long-term compatibility and encourage third-party development'though the old binary formats are still supported.

Gone is the unified view. Instead, you now load the Base (database), Draw, Impress (presentation), Calc (spreadsheet) and Writer apps separately. In-document password encryption and Asian-language support also are new.

Except for struggling to install RedHat Linux 7.2 and tweak my KDE desktop'and enduring lingering, apparently OS-related glitches, such as no floppy access from within StarOffice'I found the suite to be feature-rich, stable and easy to use.

The applications all seem pretty powerful and comparable in function to their Microsoft equivalents. There were some small exceptions'for example, Web hyperlinking is far less automatic than in Microsoft Office.

StarOffice is Microsoft Office-like, but it's not Office. I've been using the latter for a decade, so it took time to get used to StarOffice's conventions.

Things just aren't in the same places, and Sun admits that Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications macros aren't directly importable, so organizations with VBA programs might need to keep both suites.

But in most ways that count, StarOffice does what you need, such as read and save Microsoft file formats'glitch-free, in my experience.

The price is $76 even for the formerly free, downloaded version, but with quality assurance and support added. But the company now also makes most of the source code'except for third-party contributions such as the spell checker'available through the open-source organization, OpenOffice.org, whose site is at www.openoffice.org.

Contact Sun at 800-555-9786.

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