Sun Microsystems sets a challenge by giving away StarOffice software suite

Sun Microsystems sets a challenge by giving away StarOffice software suite

By John Breeden II
GCN Staff

It's faster than the speeding Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition, easier than Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 and cheaper than just about any Microsoft product.

It's a bird, it's a plane. Nope, it's StarOffice 5.1.


TEST DRIVE


Sun Microsystems Inc. has fired a shot across rival Microsoft Corp.'s bow by making the StarOffice software suite available as a free download.

Sun acquired the office suite when it bought the German company Star Division GmbH.

Although Sun chairman Scott McNealy has often called Microsoft's practice of giving away its Web browser monopolistic, I decided to judge StarOffice on its merits. I tested it running under Microsoft Windows 98'one of its many platforms.

This is not just an office suite; it's almost an alternative operating system, with its own browser, file explorer and a taskbar that mimics the standard Windows form. At first I was a bit confused when my desktop PC reconfigured itself, arranging all icons horizontally across the screen instead of in Win98's vertical layout. But within the new window, I could use the computer as expected.

Looks aren't everything

SmartSuite Millennium has lost ground against competing suites because it looks so different. If Millennium is a trip to Mars, StarOffice is a one-way trip out of the solar system.

StarOffice's biggest plus is multiplatform compatibility. The suite, originally written for Linux, also runs under Windows, SunSoft Solaris and IBM OS/2. It opens up the possibility that a mixed-hardware office could standardize on it as a desktop environment, making upgrades and technical support so much easier. Now if only StarOffice ran under Mac OS.

I tested the main components one would expect to find in an office suite: word processor, spreadsheet and presentation graphics application.

The word processor is good enough to go up against market leaders. It's pretty easy to use, although you have to get used to seeing your writing area at the left side of the screen and formatting options on the right. This is an intuitive way to set up the page, although most users will find it odd.

Compatibility between StarOffice and the other suites seems nearly flawless. When you click on a file created in Corel WordPerfect or Microsoft Word, it opens just fine in the StarOffice word processor. When you try to save, however, the default is a StarOffice .sdw extension. You can also save the document as a Word .doc file or as text. I found most files could retain their original formatting, though I did run into a few minor problems with indents and the like.

The spreadsheet component of StarOffice is a bit weak. The default setup is not very functional because for some reason, text always flows beyond the targeted cell. It can be reconfigured, but users expect such options to be set up correctly.

The spreadsheet program does have some nice features. You can drag and drop, which is great if the boss suddenly wants line item 229 turned into line item 106. Simply drag the mouse over the text to highlight it, then click in the new location.

The program automatically inserts the old text in the new location, moving other cells to make room. For people who are constantly changing things around in spreadsheets, this is a real plus.

The presentation graphics component shines. Many users are forced to consult those books for dummies to work in Microsoft PowerPoint, but I doubt anyone would need help for StarOffice's graphics program'it's that easy.

For simple slide presentations, the program practically walks you through creation. I didn't even read the instructions to create a 10-slide program with images and generic wiping effects. It was tougher to use the higher-end features, but for basic functionality I have not seen a better graphics program.





Box Score'''''''''

StarOffice 5.1

Office suite freeware



Sun Microsystems Inc.;

Palo Alto, Calif.;

tel. 800-555-9786

www.sun.com/staroffice

Price: Free; CD-ROM, $9.95 plus shipping



+Full suite of office productivity programs

+Multiplatform

'Takes getting used to



Real-life requirements:

32M of RAM, 150M of free storage





It does Windows

The file management tools, which you can use as part of the desktop environment, are comparable to Win98's. You can drag and drop files anywhere within the desktop window. Many windows can stay open, and there is a special option for hiding a window, reduced to an item on a menu bar, without sending it off to the main taskbar.

The browser is a mixed bag. It resembles the Opera browser from Opera Software of Norway in that it loads Web pages superfast. When I tested various browsers to open complex, graphics-intensive Web pages, the StarOffice browser was on average a second faster'and sometimes much faster'than Opera, Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 and Netscape Communicator.

The Star browser's status bar runs across the bottom of the screen, so you see how far along your download is when viewing pages.

I did run into a few problems viewing certain file types. Occasionally a graphics movie would not run, although other browsers could handle it. The reason might be that I had not installed all the needed plug-ins.

The amazing thing is that StarOffice is free and can be downloaded from www.sun.com/staroffice. The download takes a few hours over a 56-Kbps connection, and the site was so busy it was difficult to access. If you don't want to wait, order a CD-ROM for the price of the disk plus the shipping cost.

If you install the full suite, it takes up only 150M on your hard drive.

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