May 6, 2002

Getting to know and love StarOffice

Author: JT Smith

- By Solveig Haugland -

Three years ago, Sun Microsystems announced its purchase of StarOffice: an office suite like Microsoft Office that reads and creates MS Office formats. It has word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs that are comparable to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, plus other programs for handling graphics, databases, Web pages, and databases. Sun, more or less, gave it away and gave the source code to the Open Source community.
StarOffice has been free (for the last three years, at least), has lots of features, and speaks the language of the reigning monopolistic office suite without making you pay for it. Yet, it has a surprisingly tiny installed base and nearly flatlined public awareness.

StarOffice interface
On the eve of the release of StarOffice 6.0 and of Sun beginning to charge for the software, I've been asking myself, "What happened? Why is anyone still giving money to Bill Gates?"

Why hasn't StarOffice taken over the world? Good question.

I've become intimate with StarOffice in the last three years, as a former Sun
employee and co-author of "StarOffice Companion." I've used StarOffice, gotten to
know it warts and all, and have what I think are the answers. I've put together
the reasons and solutions for why I think StarOffice is lagging behind in
adoption, and most importantly, tips and features to help you learn to know and
love StarOffice.

Reason #1 for StarOffice's lack of market share: It's the best-kept secret in the software industry. Sun doesn't always remember to market StarOffice.

StarOffice is, all in all, a pretty fabulous product. It's been free, it has great features --way more applications than in MS Office. It opens MS Office formats plus very nearly a gazillion other formats, so you get to talk to pretty much any other file in the
world, too.

But it doesn't have any kind of decent marketing machine behind it, much less the
one behind Microsoft Office. You'll never see Jay Leno promoting StarOffice, or a
bunch of supermodels on a billboard with the title, "We'd rather go naked than use
Microsoft Office."

With due credit to Mr. McNealy, who can market the heck out of anything with five
minutes prep and a note card, Sun's marketing is pretty poor, in an odd, confusing
sort of way. It's not just StarOffice -- Sun has a long, proud tradition of being
terrible at marketing (the Java programming language aside). What the heck is the
dot in dot com? Why is Sun Ed propping up its plummeting training sales by
offering movie tickets with each course? It's just the Sun Marketing Way.
You can't even find StarOffice from the main Sun page unless you know that
StarOffice is apparently a SunONE product.

The little marketing that is done seems to be targeted at us Unix folks, which is
all very well, but we don't make up a large part of the market, and frankly, we're
plugged into the computer scene enough so that we'd have discovered StarOffice

Thus, the extent of public consciousness of StarOffice is pretty small. Some
people in the Unix world do know that StarOffice is some sort of office software
that runs on Linux (some don't even know it runs on Windows), and everyone outside
the Unix world says "What's StarOffice?"

(This would never happen with Microsoft in charge; regardless of what you think of
the people there, they know how to market.)

Solution to Reason #1: Tell everyone you know. Sun isn't.

If you've got some fit, attractive friends at the office, feel free to do that
"rather go naked" poster. Set up a certification program like Microsoft did for MS
Office. Microsoft, and VARs that support it, make millions from people who pay for
the privilege of calling themselves a Microsoft Office User Specialist. And just
tell your friends.

Reason #2: Sun's ignored the Mac.

If any group's distaste for Microsoft outclasses that of Linux users, it's Mac
users. And now there's OS X, built on FreeBSD. But was there a StarOffice for the
millions of Mac users? Nope.

Mac users also do a lot of graphic design, and they've been missing out on Draw,
StarOffice's drawing program. It's easy to just throw together a logo, drawing,
tweak lightness and color on a photo, etc. Draw has some really spectacular
features; I'm not an Illustrator user, but so far I haven't seen any reason to
become one. I do a fair amount of graphics for Web sites and technical
documentation, and Draw has great raster graphics abilities plus built-in raster
graphic editing capabilities.

Solution to Reason #2: Not anymore.

Mac users, keep the faith. Reliable sources within Sun tell me that StarOffice or
OpenOffice for Mac is coming, though the dates are unclear. It'll be here.
The same news has been reported on

Reason #3: StarOffice is from Venus.

StarOffice doesn't have Microsoft's gigantic Easy Fuzzy GUI Usability Machine
behind it. It's not constructed quite the way we expect. And in my opinion, it
seems like a small group of wily engineers on the StarOffice team were paid to put
features where their managers couldn't find them.

And let's face it. There is no truly intuitive user interface. Our ancestors
didn't avoid bears and find fruit by clicking and pointing. There's just fairly
logical divisions, and there's what we're used to. We're used to Microsoft Office,
and StarOffice is different from MS Office.

Solution to Reason #3: You will have to get a book. And you'll have to spend some time on StarOffice 101. But then you'll be rockin' and rollin'.

Accept the need for getting, and constantly referring to, a book, and the
transition will be a lot easier. Think of StarOffice as a foreign country, where
you need a guidebook and a map to get around. Once you learn that they drive on
the opposite side of the road, and that the beer is supposed to be served warm
(and it's really excellent beer), you discover what a great country it is.

StarOffice just takes learning; not really due to any fault of its own, just
because it's different. I feel absolutely no shame in telling everyone I know to
buy a StarOffice book, preferably mine, because you do need a book. I wrote the
section on FTP, but it was two years ago and so last weekend when I was uploading
files to a new Web site, I had to look up the procedure in my own book. (It's not
like you can choose File > Upload via FTP -- you need to go into Explorer, create a new folder, then right-click on the folder and choose New > FTP account. From then on, it's a beautiful, easy, drag-and-drop process.)

Key things to spend time learning include:

Writer styles. They work very differently from Word, and it's not really the best
design. Still, once you know it, you can make it work easily. Set aside four hours
to sit down with your book and your laptop at your favorite coffee shop. Play with
styles, and get them under your belt.

Learn what the options do. Choose Tools > Options. Look at everything in there -- a lot of the stuff that bugs you is probably set in one of those windows. Likewise,
some of the stuff that you want done that doesn't happen can be corrected through
those windows. Go through the windows one by one and make sure you know what each
setting does, and whether you want it done.

Learn Web and Writer's Internet features. There are five or six fields in the
Hyperlink bar (not shown by default) in Web and Writer, all of which have very
similar names --Load URL, URL Name, Internet URL, etc., and do very different
things. Spend some time learning exactly what they do and how they work. They're
very useful when you get to know them; the Hyperlink Dialog icon (leading to the
Hyperlink window) lets you link to URLs as well as to new blank pages, FTP, or
Telnet links, and lets you make the link text or a button.

So you need a book. Everyone needs a book. I'm referring to my book right now to
remind me of the cool features and tips I want to mention, what the names of the
icons are (not always well named or intuitive), and how to do them. Once you find
out how, you can do pretty much anything in StarOffice. It might involve
right-clicking on something entirely unrelated, or select some cells before the
option will show up, or editing a .txt file buried deep in your user directory, or
setting file access options at the OS level, but you can probably do it. Killing a
chicken is rarely if ever necessary.

Reason #5: The terrors of the StarOffice fireswamp.

There are, as with any program, a few things about StarOffice that are really hard
to figure out (again, see solution to #2) that typically drive beginning users

Solution to Reason #5: Print and clip these tips. Tape them to your monitor.
Here are the top 11 StarOffice Tips and Tricks that will make your StarOffice life
a lot easier.

Autoformat in StarOffice

1. Wrapping text in a cell in a spreadsheet: Choose Format > Cell > Alignment and click the option titled Line Break.

2. Turning off the integrated desktop: Choose View and unmark Integrated Desktop. (It sounds simple but Floyd Jones, Companion's co-author, had to show me.)

3. Printing a spreadsheet in landscape orientation: There are several settings
that control orientation in all StarOffice applications. We covered them on page
82 of the Companion. The key one to check for spreadsheets is the page setup.
Choose Format > Page, click the Page tab, and make sure the Landscape option is marked. This overrides anything in the printing options.

4. Where did the formatting toolbar go? When you're in a table or cell, the text
formatting toolbar disappears. To get it back, just look at the far right end of
the toolbar (scroll if necessary) and click the left-pointing arrow.

5. Turning off the automatic formatting: If you like it, great. If you don't,
here's how to switch it off. (See "Turning Off Annoying Features" on page 115 of
the StarOffice Companion for full coverage). To turn off the integrated desktop,
choose View and unmark Integrated Desktop. To turn off the ever-present Help
Agent, choose Tools >Options, General > Other and under the Help Agent area,
unmark Start Automatically. To turn off the #!%&**! Autocompletion, choose Tools >
AutoCorrect/AutoFormat, then select the Word Completion tab. Deselect the Complete Words option.

6. Printing duplex (double-sided) for Solaris or Linux. It takes a few windows to
set it up, but you can do it and it works. (StarOffice Companion, page 69). It's
actually too long to include here, but you need to use four different windows, and
the crucial part is, in the Printer Properties window's Device tab, selecting the
Duplex Module option and Installed from the Current Value. And whatever you do,
make absolutely sure you've got the right paper size selected, too. In the United States,
select only Legal or Letter.

7. Printing slides without depleting the printer toner: Either just print in
grayscale or black-and-white by making the right selection in the print options
window, or just remove the background. (Apply a blank background.)

8. Printing more than one slide on a sheet: Use the Handouts feature. (The Tile
print option works in a way that can kindly be called inconsistent.) Switch to
Handout view by clicking the Handout view icon or choosing View > Background >
Handout. Choose Format > Modify Layout and make a selection in the Modify Slide window. To print in portrait rather than landscape, choose Format > Page, click the Page tab, and select Portrait. Rearrange or resize the slides if you want, you can also add page numbers.

9. Installing another version on the same machine: You can't install more than one
version at a time of a particular release on a machine. That is, you can have 5.1
and 5.2, but you can't install another 5.2. Unless you know about the Secret
Install Files, that is. Look for sversionrc in your Linux home directory. Use a
semicolon to comment out any installation you want the installer to ignore. After
installation, your best bet on starting StarOffice is just using a terminal window
and running ./soffice from the appropriate directory.

10. Reverting .html files so they're not StarOffice files by default: You might be
surprised to see StarOffice starting when you double-click one of your .html
pages. There are a couple ways to get around this; the simpler is to just use .htm
pages. Switch the file names, then restart.

11. Printing tables: It's simple, but annoying if it's not set up right. And the
default is the wrong way for most people. To allow a table to break at rows when
printed, choose Format > Table, click the Text Flow tab, and mark the Break
option. Also make sure the Don't Split Table option isn't marked.

Just say no: Some features, sadly, should just be left alone. Don't bother with
the macro scripting language unless you're an expert and like that sort of thing.
Don't go anywhere near the outline numbering feature in Writer if you can help it.
Don't do multi-use Schedule unless you have a great deal of technical fortitude.
Brochure printing works in a way that can be kindly called inconsistent. And some
of the features, while Robust, are just so complicated you're better off not using

Reason #5: You need to know StarOffice to love it.

Given the poor marketing, it's not surprising that people don't know many, if any,
of the cool features. Like great change and version tracking. Animation in
presentations. And that in 6.0, the file sizes are tiny. You'll have to work to get
files over 100k. And that, of course, there's an OpenOffice Open Source version that's totally free. I think Draw is easier to learn to use than Illustrator, and is a pretty dandy vector graphics program.

Solution to Reason #5: Get to know the cool StarOffice features.

In addition to the premier feature, interacting with the MS Office world without
touching it, here are the things I think are particularly cool. Here are my
choices, in no particular order.

1. Custom presentations: Do you have a slide presentation that you really should
deliver differently to the boss, your associates, and the marketing people? Or
training that should be detailed for the programmers and more general for the
managers? Just make all the slides you'll need, then make different versions for
each audience. All in the same file. And if you're on the road, it's easy to pack
up the presentation, put it on one or more floppies, and slap it on our laptop
along with a run-only version of Impress, called the Impress Player. In a
presentation, choose Slide Show > Custom Slide Show.

2. HTML and Kiosk presentations: Anything you make in Impress, or import from
PowerPoint to Impress, can be exported to an HTML presentation. The settings come
with it, so you can just run it in a loop. Create a presentation, then choose File
> Export and select HTML as the file type.

3. Scenarios and goal seek in Calc: Wanna know what you have to do to get $40,000
in sales per month? Use scenarios and goal seek. They're really cool. In a
spreadsheet, choose Tools > Goal Seek. For scenarios, where you can set up a bunch of values based on an item in a drop-down list, select your cells first and then
choose Tools > Scenarios.

4. Drop-down lists in Calc: I don't want to be coy, but it's too long to put the
whole procedure in here. Floyd did a lot of great research to find out the code
for how to do this. It's in the Companion.

3D graphics in StarOffice

5. Great advanced graphics features: You can waste days happily playing with Draw,
Image, and Impress graphics. It's easy to make image maps, animated gifs,
marquees, and 3D graphics with an amazing attributes window. I don't know what
Phong is, but you can control its effect on a 3D object using StarOffice. Plus
it's got FontWorks, this add-on app that lets you mess around with text, make it
wave or curve, like you can in Photoshop.

6a. Calculations in plain tables: If you're just making a plain table in Web or
Writer, you've still got the Calc capabilities. You can throw in calculations and
formulas and generally treat it like a spreadsheet. (It's also to just insert a
new spreadsheet into a Web or Writer file, too.)

6b. Spreadsheets in any other application: Want to put your spreadsheet in Writer,
or in a presentation? Just do it. You can insert on that you've already done, or
insert a new one and then work with it just like you're in Calc.

7. Charts: Got a table? You've got a chart. Just select the columns, choose to
create a chart, pick a few formatting options, and it's there. Select the table
and choose Insert > Object > Chart. A wizard walks you through it.

8. Selecting nonconsecutive paragraphs. In the Writer status bar, click the box
that says STD until it reads ADD. This changes the text selection mode. When
you're done with the task involving selecting nonconsecutive paragraphs, click the
same box so it goes back to STD.

9. Mail merge: StarOffice is all over mail merge, labels, all that stuff. And it's
easy to connect to a database, or just use a spreadsheet, for your data source.
Really quite easy, especially considering how hard some people work to figure out
how to wrap text in a spreadsheet cell.

10. Visio Inside: It's got these great connector lines and measuring lines in Draw
and Impress that make you feel like you've got a mini Visio right there. As in
Visio, which lets you draw shapes that are connected and stay connected when you
mess around with the shapes, Draw has connector lines with lots of capabilities.
You can also draw lines from one point to the other that automatically display the
actual distance, based on the drawing scale you're using. Try to tell me that
wouldn't come in handy. In a Draw document, click on the Lines and Arrows or
Connector tools in the main toolbar on the left.

11. It opens everything: I don't want to harp on this point, but it seems to be
overlooked in all the fuss about Linux and Open Source and fighting the evil
empire. It's your one-stop-shopping, universal-translator software. It opens your
old WordStar files from college, and the WordPerfect files from your old job.

What do you do now?

If you're not using or loving StarOffice yet, follow these steps.

1. Make sure you have StarOffice 5.2. It has a few good features that will be gone
in 6.0 (FTP, Image as a separate application, and Schedule). In addition,
StarOffice 6.0 is not free. So download 5.2 now from Sun. You can download it in chunks if you don't have broadband. Even if you start using OpenOffice or
StarOffice 6.0, you want 5.2 for the FTP and Image and Schedule.

2. Get a book. The 5.2 books available are StarOffice Companion (mine, with Floyd
Jones), and Mastering StarOffice by David Busch et al. (The Companion will be
updated for 6.0 this summer.)

3. Get to know OpenOffice. OpenOffice is the Open Source version of what will be
StarOffice 6.0. Go to now, if you haven't; they just had a big release.

It's always free, and it's Open Source, so it's cool. And unlike the marketing
situation at Sun, Sam Hiser and the other folks at work very hard
on marketing it.

4. Keep any eye on the OpenOffice Mac porting project, and keep your eyes peeled
for a Beta StarOffice 6.0 Mac version from Sun.

5. Install it, use it, open MS Office files and edit them, open WordPerfect files
and save them in MS Word format. Waste a day playing with the graphics features.
Insert spreadsheets in everything. Walk off into the sunset together. This could
be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Solveig Haugland is co-author of "StarOffice Companion," the best-selling user's
guide to StarOffice 5.2. The updated 6.0 version of the book is coming in August.
She is also author of "StarOffice and OpenOffice Orienteering," a short guide to
getting started with either application's 6.0 release. Solveig has 11 years of experience as a technical writer, Java course developer, and StarOffice author. She's co-founder of The Last Turtle, an author-run source for StarOffice, OpenOffice, and Java certification books. You can contact her at

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