March 12, 2001

Gaining new respect for StarOffice

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Back when I used Windows, I used to print my own simple business
cards instead of paying a commercial printer to make them for me. Now I have learned to print business cards under Linux, using
StarOffice. For the longest time, I thought of StarOffice as a
program that was only useful for reading and working with
Microsoft-created documents or spreadsheets, and took a sadly typical Linux
user's sniffy "Oh, StarOffice is so ... bloated" attitude
toward it. Now I'm starting to explore StarOffice as a productivity
tool in and of itself, not just as a translation devices for MS Word and Excel files,
and the more I look, the more I like.

The business card experiment started out as a review of a
commercial Linux software product that its vendor touted as a
"desktop publisher." I attempted to test this program by
using it to perform basic small office desktop publishing tasks like
producing a four-page, two-column newsletter with captioned photos
scattered amid the text; producing a basic business letter with a
logo letterhead at the top; and making business cards. These were all things I
had learned to do in assorted low-cost Windows programs with a little
manual-reading and general futzing around, so I figured a Linux
program with the sentence, "The premier LINUX desktop publishing
solution!" on its box -- and a $79.95 price tag -- ought to be
able to do at least as much as $39.95 Printmaster
. But even without Printmaster's 100,000+ available
images (no big deal; the Internet is full of free downloadable
imagery) and endless templates, I'm afraid the Linux program was so
disappointing by comparison that I am kindly not going to
review it here. (If you want to read more about this program, you can
check this
LinuxWorld review
, since I would have said pretty much the same
things anyway.)

But I had gotten the idea of printing business cards at home into my head
and couldn't get it out. I looked through the various text and word
processing programs I currently had installed, all of which were
included in Linux-Mandrake
, and there, in the backwaters of StarOffice, I found a set of templates that automatically created business cards
I could print either on Avery pre-scored inkjet
business card stock
or on plain card stock and cut up myself,
which costs quite a bit less.

It took a little experimentation to get things to
work right, but it took more than a little futzing around to get the
same results with Windows software back when I used Windows -- and
the desktop publishing programs I experimented with under Windows
weren't free like StarOffice, either.

My next experiment with StarOffice was creating a reasonably
standard "neighborhood newsletter" similar to the one my
local community organization puts out. I've gotten a lot of "Gee,
Robin, you're good with computers and you're a professional
, so why don't you volunteer to do the newsletter"
comments over the last few years. Aside from being insanely busy most
of the time, I wasn't sure what software I'd use to publish it under
Linux, and I am determined to keep my home Microsoft-free. I knew
that most typed copy other people turned in for the newsletter would
be in MS Word, format, too, and that this might be another
time-consuming barrier.

But once again, silly me, I hadn't explored
StarOffice enough. It will certainly handle MS doc formats (we all
knew that), but it also turns out that, with the slightest bit of
learning, you can easily use it to make a nice two-column newsletter
with a masthead on the front page, and that it has more than enough
graphics handling capability built in to easily insert pictures of
this and that and to "paste up" and position the
rudimentary ads local merchants and home-based neighborhood business
people pay the community association (very small amounts) to run.

This doesn't solve the constant time crunch that is the other big
reason I don't commit to publishing the little newsletter, but it's
nice to know I could do it if my schedule ever loosens up.

You'd think a word processor capable of turning out a newsletter
would have no trouble with a business letter with a logo across its
top. You'd be right. StarOffice does that so easily, it's silly. I
should have tried this trick long ago. And I never really explored
StarOffice as an HTML editor, either. It does a decent job of it,
although I'll probably stick with, simple, tried-and-true Bluefish
for at least 90% of my day-to-day online writing tasks because I like
the way it looks and feels, and I have my copy customized to do all
sorts of cool little macro things with single mouseclicks and
keyboard shortcuts that speed up my work so much that no "stock"
program (in any operating system) could possibly compete with it.

But I'll tell you, for someone who doesn't know any HTML but needs
to turn out HTML pages, StarOffice does at least as good a job as any
"what you see is what you get" HTML editor I've ever seen,
in any operating system, for any price.

StarOffice downsides? Well... I don't seem to have working Java
with my copy, which is silly since StarOffice publisher Sun also
produces Java. The built-in StarOffice browser is nothing to write
home about, either, and I can't get the email function to work. These
are not big deals; I'm reasonably satisfied with Netscape 4.76 for
both Web browsing and email at the moment, and if I move to another
email client it'll probably be either KMail
or Pronto. The other big
complaint about StarOffice is that it takes forever to load. I have a
simple workaround for this: run it on a separate KDE desktop devoted to
nothing but StarOffice and do other things (check email, etc.) while
the big lug wakes up, shakes itself, pours a cup of coffee, gets
dressed, and does whatever else it does to get itself ready for work.

I'm sure there are many wondrous things StarOffice can do for me
once I have the time and energy to figure them all out, and that
OpenOffice, the up-and-coming
100% Open Source replacement for StarOffice, wiil be far better than
StarOffice in a few short months if it isn't already, but I work a
killer schedule and don't have time to do as much software playing as
I'd like, let alone to mess with OpenOffice before it gets to the
level of a fully stable, full-featured, RPM-installable, workaday
tool instead of a hobby for beta testers. Meanwhile, I am happy with
the few new tricks I have learned to do with StarOffice, and more
than a little sorry I didn't start doing more with it when I got my
first copy of the thing about three years ago.

Sometimes the best things in life are not only free, but have been
right there in front of your face all along, waiting for you to
recognize them.

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