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Star Division StarOffice 5.0 Personal Edition
An office suite that could keep Bill Gates up at night
StarOffice 5.0 Personal Edition
Star Division
Windows, OS/2, Linux, Sun Solaris
If nothing else, 1998 will be remembered in the computer industry as the year everything was free. While the notion of free software is older than the personal computer industry, in 1998 it seemed more prevalent than before, especially on the Internet. Every time you turned around, companies were offering free advice, free browsers, free e-mail, free Web sites, free operating systems—everything, it seemed, short of free money.

Like the Linux operating system and Netscape's open source code, one of the more interesting wrinkles is yet another volley aimed across Microsoft's bow. Germany-based Star Division has released StarOffice, a productivity suite crammed with enough software to compete with even the professional edition of Microsoft Office. And in case you hadn't guessed, it's free.

Well, kind of free. StarOffice is free for personal use, if you're willing to download the 62 MB installation file (the Linux version is 70 MB) from Star Division's Web site. For $39.95 in US funds you can get the Personal Edition Deluxe, which includes an installation CD, printed documentation, and more templates, clip art, and fonts. Commercial users get a nice deal as well: the most expensive package offered is only $169 (again, in US funds) per license.

StarOffice includes StarWriter, StarCalc, StarDraw, StarImpress, StarBase, StarSchedule, StarMail, and StarDiscussion; respectively, word processing, spreadsheet, vector art, database, PIM, e-mail, and newsreading programs. There's even a fully-featured Web browser in there, capable of reading Microsoft's CDF-format channels. And here's the kicker: StarOffice uses its own file formats, but can also read and write, among other things, Microsoft Office files.

The filters aren't perfect for reasons I'll go into later, but that last tidbit is still enough to make executives at the Redmond giant break into a collective cold sweat. Consider the amount of people who buy Microsoft Office (or, quite possibly, stand-alone copies of Word or Excel) just to be able to bring work home, or to be compatible with other people's systems. The prospect of even half of these people switching to a free or cheap alternative must make Bill Gates a little antsy. Star Office's availability on more operating systems than Microsoft Office—with Sun Solaris Sparc, X.86, Macintosh, Java, and Windows 3.1 on the way—must keep him up at night.

To test the Gates insomnia theory, I used StarOffice instead of Microsoft Office 97 for a little over a month. To test the limits of file compatibility, I used the same files with Microsoft Office when I had to work with them in the outside world. That meant heavy use of StarWriter and StarCalc, and a few tests with StarDiscussion and the StarOffice Web browser. (In case you're wondering, this article—and every other article I worked on for five weeks—was written using StarOffice. None of my editors have complained yet.)

StarOffice launches as a desktop which looks like a cross between the Windows desktop, an Internet browser, and and just about any Microsoft Office application. Most of the screen is set aside for your icons (your shortcuts and files from the Windows desktop), with configurable toolbars along the top and side. In much the same way as the newer Windows operating systems, you can type a URL, filename, or directory name into the designated space, and the appropriate action will be taken. There's even a Start button on the taskbar at the bottom, with a StarOffice logo in place of the familiar Windows icon.

If you poke around the menus and toolbars trying to find StarWriter or StarCalc, you'll just get frustrated; they're not mentioned by name anywhere in the desktop. You can start StarWriter by clicking on Start and choosing Text Document from the menu, but you could just as easily double-click on a document icon or type the filename in the URL box. StarOffice seems to discourage the notion of separate applications; any opened document is just another window within the StarOffice desktop, represented by a separate button on the taskbar; switching to a different window changes some of the toolbars, as appropriate to the document. It's an interesting approach, which leans towards something Nicholas Negroponte proposed in an early issue of Wired: rather than opening an application in order to work, you just start working on a document, and the computer takes care of the rest.

The applications themselves are just about as chock full of features as their Microsoft counterparts. StarWriter was able to handle any Word file I threw at it, and performed any function I asked of it without fail. It matched Word for every feature I could think of, including borders, shading, spell check, AutoCorrect, AutoFormat, styles, columns, and headers and footers. Some features I actually preferred over those from Word. For instance, after inserting a field (such as the date), I could modify it by just double-clicking on it. StarCalc was much the same. And as a bonus, I couldn't reproduce any of Excel 97's recalculation bugs.

StarOffice is also staggeringly customizable. There actually seem to be more customizable options than in Microsoft Office. Just about every customizable option in Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and Netscape Navigator is here, as are many from Windows. On top of that, you can also define such things as StarOffice's color scheme—independent of Windows'—and specify, say, which print errors should be displayed and which should be ignored. Many of these options are also unified across applications, which is quite helpful.

StarOffice's Achilles heel is located smack-dab where its greatest strength should be: file-format compatibility with Microsoft Office 97. According to Star Division's Web site, Star Office's filters "provide seamless and easy interoperability with the Microsoft Office products." They are easy, but seamless? StarWriter came closest to that claim, happily sharing documents and recognizing styles, graphics, and columnar layouts. Some floating graphics placed within columns didn't come through properly placed, but that was easily fixed with a few mouse clicks. However, revision marks weren't consistently accurate between StarWriter and Word 97, and anything saved using Word 97's Fast Save feature caused problems. Of course, saving anything in Word 97 with Fast Save is just asking for trouble anyway; one can't really hold Star Division responsible for that.

StarCalc was a little more problematic. Any dates in my worksheets had their display formats changed as I opened the files. It's easy to fix, but a nuisance. The real grief came with worksheets that used borders and shading; when saved in StarCalc and re-opened in Excel 97, most of the borders were too thick, and some of the shading was altered. Some cells even had shading added, which was a surprise. Finally, while StarCalc supports mixed text styles (bold, italic) within a cell, it didn't handle exporting that very well. Cells with mixed bold and plain text came out in Excel 97 as completely bold text.

Finally, there's an aggravating problem with file export. When working on a Word 97 file in StarWriter, StarWriter will inexplicably default to saving it in the Word 95 format. In order to save it in its original format, I had to use Save As and specify Word 97. Clearly, StarWriter knew the format of the file being opened; is it too much to ask that it remember that format when it comes time to save it?

Even with these problems, StarOffice presents a viable alternative to other office suites. If you regularly work with documents that may be problematic in StarOffice, you may want to test them with the import/export filters. Since the only cost is the time required to download the 60 MB archive, there's nothing to lose but time.

Someone once said that anything free is worth exactly what you paid for it. StarOffice proves that sometimes you can come out ahead.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (March 1999)