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Is Sun's StarOffice a Microsoft killer?

October 8, 1999
Web posted at: 10:26 a.m. EDT (1426 GMT)

by Joe Barr


(IDG) -- Sun's recent acquisition of Star Division, makers of the multiplatform office suite called StarOffice, was certainly big news. But that was followed by an even bigger announcement: Sun is making StarOffice available for free. Not only is the suite to be free in price, but Sun is also promising to make its source code, file formats, and protocols free under the terms of the Sun Community Source License.

I've explained before that I am not a big fan of office suites, no matter who makes them. In the early days of office suites, the applications were severely dumbed down in comparison with stand-alone versions. They have improved in this regard over the years, but even as they got smarter they also became more invasive and bloated. I liked them even less for that.

I didn't like the loss of freedom no matter who made them -- Lotus, IBM, or Microsoft. I always felt that, if I bought an office suite, something I've never done, I would be locked into using a predefined set of productivity tools. Instead of being able to choose my favorite word processor (the choice of which has been the source of many a jihad), or spreadsheet, or presentation tool, I would be served the house brand.

Obviously, given the money being made at Redmond based on the sales of suites, not everyone shares my concerns or views office suites as being a Bad Thing. Of course, I've never had to administer applications across a department or company, or support groups using them. The uniformity that office suites bring is viewed in that light as being a Good Thing. But I dug in my heels and watched the concept of Best of Breed at the application level become meaningless, because the rest of the world moved to Best of Blob.

StarOffice is different, however -- or at least it is now. Many in the industry view Sun's moves as a direct assault on Microsoft's second-most lucrative monopoly, Microsoft Office, or even as an assault that parallels Microsoft's own march against Netscape. While this one may not succeed in cutting off Microsoft's air supply, it just might cause a little gagging in Redmond.

While I do not have a burning desire to review StarOffice on its own merits, I feel that it is worth a look as a possible strategic weapons system.

Let the review begin

I had to download StarOffice from work, where we have very fast Internet access, rather than over my ISDN line at home. It was slow FTPing the 70 MB tarball (this is an office suite, remember) from work to home once I got it from the Sun FTP site, but at least it was doable. I had found it impossible to complete the download on the link between the Sun site and home.

In spite of its size, StarOffice 5.1 installed quickly. A nit: I had to locate the Acrobat 3 reader I had downloaded several months ago in order to read the setup instructions. It seems to me that it would have been more accommodating to provide the documentation in HTML and ASCII as well. But at this price, how can I complain?

The documentation itself has a professional quality to it, and it has already been branded as a Sun product. I got a little nervous when the install program started asking for Internet information: mail account, mail server, news server, and so on. So I gave it the info for a secondary email account of mine rather than for my primary account. I did not want to learn, postinstall, that StarOffice had suddenly become my one-stop interface for the Internet.
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When you start StarOffice, a small, attractive splash screen appears in the center of your desktop. So far, so good -- first impressions and all that. But then a full size window appears. This window is, in fact, a "desktop in a window" for StarOffice.

From the StarOffice window, you can double-click on the appropriate icon and do your mail, a spreadsheet, a text document, graphics, a presentation, or perhaps a calendar entry. I noticed that, in the Windows version of StarOffice, the window also included all the icons that had appeared on my desktop. Not so in the Linux version.

As if the StarOffice window had not yet staked a claim over enough of the real estate on your desktop, it also created a scrollable area beneath each icon to provide tips and hints.

That's all well and good, I suppose, if you like to run an office suite instead of a real desktop. I don't. If I am going to use any of the apps in StarOffice, I am going to use them individually and fit them into my scheme of things, not StarOffice's

Luckily, the desktop window is sizeable, and the first thing I did in StarOffice was to make it as small as I could while still being able to see all the icons. Then I got rid of the scrolling help/tips area in order to further cut down its size.

Trouble with numbers

Then I tried the mail application, the one I was worried would take over all my regular mail chores. It didn't, and I did manage to send myself a note.

But before I sent the note, the program complained that I had only chosen to use ASCII format, as if this were some kind of crime. I guess it wanted me to also make it HTML, or perhaps do some coloring, or use funny fonts, or add sounds or something. Please. Gag me with sendmail.

And scratch StarOffice mail from the list of its applications I ever want to see again. But again, this is just me. I am not exactly the target audience for this (or any) office suite.

The next task on the agenda was to give the StarOffice spreadsheet capabilities a test. I had just the thing to do that with: a gargantuan Microsoft Office 97 Excel spreadsheet. This particular spreadsheet had caused GNOME Gnumeric to segfault when I first looked at it several months ago. What could be more natural than to try it with StarOffice?

(By the way, when I wrote about the spreadsheet crashing Gnumeric, Michael Meeks, the developer, contacted me at once and asked for a copy of it. A day or so later, he wrote back to say he had found and fixed the bug.)

Unfortunately, StarOffice was not up to the task. It crashed while loading the 1.3 MB spreadsheet file, just as Gnumeric had done originally.

Curious to see if the Windows version of StarOffice would fare any differently, I installed 5.1 on my NT machine at work and tried the spreadsheet on it.

The results under Windows were mixed. The spreadsheet did not crash the application while loading, but once it was loaded most of the cells were filled, not with data, but with strange-looking *** STS ERROR *** messages.

Since I also have Applix installed, I thought it would interesting to see if itcould handle this problematic XLS file. But alas, it suffered the same fate as the Linux version of StarOffice (and, once upon a time, Gnumeric before it) and crashed while loading.

All of the problems this spreadsheet had caused got me wondering if I hadn't somehow grunged it up. So I downloaded the latest version of Gnumeric (the 0.38 release) and gave it a whirl. Finally, in all its glory, the spreadsheet appeared just as baud intended.

[Note to Sun/StarOffice and Applix: the GNOME gnumeric development team will be happy to explain to you what it did to handle this monster sheet. Mail me ( for this contact information, if you'd like.]

I think that it is safe to say that not all Excel spreadsheets are transportable to StarOffice, whether you are on the Linux or the Windows version. Keep this in mind if you are considering a migration from Microsoft Office.

Finally, I tried the StarOffice word processor. It seemed to do just fine importing an Microsoft Office 97 Word document. I didn't notice any glitches in formatting at all. Then again, my test was with a relatively small and simple document.

Given the problems encountered with the spreadsheet, I would also recommend that you check compatibility between StarOffice and Microsoft Word-created documents further before considering a move to StarOffice. If any readers have more information about StarOffice's compatibility (or lack thereof) with other Word formats, please do let me know.

Can Sun succeed without a leering paperclip?

As I said up front, I am not a fan of office suites, no matter who makes them. Much of my discomfort with StarOffice would have remained with any other office suite.

But in my judgement, I would say that StarOffice does not measure up to Microsoft Office in terms of power or functionality. The StarOffice advantage -- a significant one, in the grand scheme of things -- is that it is free, whereas Microsoft's suite costs hundreds of dollars.

The CompUSA Website is currently offering a Microsoft Office 2000 Premium Upgrade (with Intellimouse) for $419.95. That's the upgrade price, folks, not a full system price. Naturally, the Standard and Pro editions are less, but even the lowest-priced Microsoft Office spread starts at roughly $200.00 -- again, as an upgrade. That kind of sticker shock certainly helps explain why Sun has decided to acquire and offer a less powerful suite as an alternative.

All other things being equal, StarOffice is not good enough, on its own merits, to cause existing Microsoft Office customers to switch. It is, however, an attractive, full-featured, completely functional suite. And it is more than good enough to give buyers pause when it comes time to decide whether it's worth the additional $400 per seat to upgrade Office 95 or 97 to Office 2000.

I overheard a conversation at a LUG (Linux Users' Group) meeting recently about StarOffice. A small firm here in Austin has nine copies of Microsoft Office at present. It is looking for a way to avoid upgrading to Office 2000.

The questions about StarOffice flew fast and furious: Is there a Windows version? Is it fully compatible with Office? What are the licensing terms? It was obvious to me that here was one customer who was seriously considering a leap from the Microsoft Upgrade Express.

Strategic thinking

Strategically, StarOffice is important in several ways. It provides a path not only to those wanting to escape the Upgrade Express while running Windows, but bridges to alternate operating systems as well: Linux, OS/2, and Solaris.

Still, the bridges provided are not offering users a path to better software and greater productivity so much as they are offering an escape from economic hardship. Of course, networking across a heterogenous environment doesn't hurt (and neither does the access to the source code).

But the migration can be accomplished in phases. The first move away from Microsoft products could be a simple replacement of Microsoft Office with StarOffice, while continuing to run Windows Whatever as the operating system.

Those having success (and lots of savings) doing that might be encouraged to take the next step, the big one, and move to another platform completely.

Especially if Windows 2000 continues to stumble coming out of the gate, or if the DOJ finds a way to free the desktop OS market from the death grip in which Microsoft now holds it, consumers will have choices -- not just for operating systems, but for productivity software as well.

Joe Barr is a software professional, writer, and self-proclaimed dweeb. He has been working in the industry since 1974 as a programmer, analyst, consultant, and manager. In 1994 he began writing a monthly column called Papa Joe's Dweebspeak Primer in Austin, TX's Tech Connected magazine. The column exists today as an ezine and newsletter at, which has run on Linux since its inception.

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