December 8, 2003

Review: StarOffice 7 -- innovation in action

Author: Bruce Byfield

Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 7, released November 12, offers significant advantages in performance, usability, and stability over rival commercial office suites, including Microsoft Office. However, when the comparison is to version 1.1, the open source project from which StarOffice takes its code, it's harder to say where the advantage lies.

StarOffice 7's new features extend its usability in several directions. Its improved Microsoft Office filters, while still far from perfect, are an advance on those in StarOffice 6. Their results are certainly no worse than the formatting nightmares that occur between different installations of Microsoft Office because of the risky combination of a flaky template system and ignorant users. (No matter the office suite, to be sure of preserving formatting, send your documents in PDF or PostScript format.)

Some new features, such as export filters for Flash and Palm formats and an editor for XML export, acknowledge the rise of technologies newer than the office suite. Others, such as support for bi-directional and vertical writing, make Asian and Hebrew versions possible -- a possibility that is already being realized in localizations. Support for MySQL as a data source and for Python scripting, accessibility options, expanded Help sections -- all of these new features show StarOffice/ developers listening to users.

These features are built on a dependable core. Although it is possible to crash StarOffice, the breaking point is higher than with most office suites. When a document exceeds 30 megabytes in Microsoft Office, a crash and, often, file corruption, is imminent. By contrast, in my experience, StarOffice remains stable to the limits of a computer's virtual memory and RAM -- and then rarely corrupts files. On the rare occasions when files are corrupted, the fact that the native format for documents is zipped XML files means that the content, at least, can often be retrieved.

Other performance advantages include greater connectivity between applications in the office suite -- due, no doubt, to the fact that they were designed together, rather than being separate programs originally -- and the ability to work with a variety of databases, including dBase, MySQL, Postgres, and even Access. However, StarOffice's advantages are especially obvious in two main areas: the interface and the use of styles.

The interface

StarOffice's interface strikes a careful balance between familiarity and innovation. On the one hand, large chunks of the interface are obviously based on other software. The new PDF Export dialogue, for instance, with its three levels of quality -- screen, print, and press optimized -- is an imitation of the structure introduced in version 4.0 of Adobe Acrobat. Similarly, the Templates and Document window has more than a passing resemblance to its Microsoft Office equivalent. So does the Accept or Reject window for recorded changes. For that matter, the File menu is a close duplicate of the one in Microsoft Office. In both office suites the spell checker is at the top of the menu, and most manual formatting can be done by browsing through the Format menu with occasional forays into the Insert menu.

These similarities make switching to StarOffice easy. In my experience, basic users of Microsoft Office -- and that means most of them -- can become productive in StarOffice in a morning (and that includes taking a coffee break and an early lunch).

On the other hand, the interface makes several innovations. Without exception, StarOffice's autopilots are more thorough than the wizards in Microsoft Office. The batch programs for converting Microsoft Office or StarOffice 5.2 documents, or for converting other currencies into euros, are two obvious examples. However, the strongest example is the autopilot that starts when users start Impress, StarOffice's presentation program. The wizard that starts with PowerPoint, Microsoft Office's presentation software, offers two choices: Before adding content, either you can choose the background and layout, or you can choose the content type, the output format, and the information on each slide. After you finish the PowerPoint wizard, you still need to make decisions about the look and feel of the presentation. By contrast, the steps in the Impress autopilot let users choose:

  • Background and content
  • Slide design and output formats
  • Slide transitions, including default and automatic types
  • The name, subject and other reoccuring information
  • The pages in the content type to use

When you finish the Impress autopilot you have completely set up a basic presentation. You can choose to elaborate on the presentation, but the point is that you don't have to; you can be productive without knowing any details about how the program works.

Some of the autopilots for letters, faxes and other standard office documents are less spectacular, but all of them are so useful that they often make the sample templates in StarOffice redundant.

Another major interface innovation is StarOffice's use of floating palettes and pull-down windows. As far as I know, StarOffice/ is the first to introduce floating palettes into an office suite. StarOffice's floating palettes are the Navigator, a tool for moving about in a document and for outlining, and the Stylist, a tool for applying and editing styles. Although both are a liability on a small screen, on a 17-inch monitor or better, the Navigator and the Stylist are significant time-savers for users concerned with structure and formatting. Conveniently, both can be allowed to float or be docked to the side of the StarOffice window.

The pull-down windows are less versatile but equally useful. The Gallery is an editable clip art collection that pulls down from the top of the editing window and can be used to drag and drop graphics into a document. While much of the clip art is in a sketchy style that seems unsuitable for professional needs, a few are extremely practical; the flow chart objects, for instance, allow StarOffice to function as a charting program. Other clip art can be added to the gallery. The Data Sources window allows similar access to material stored in a database. Both can be scrolled up when not in use.

Doing it with styles

Another innovation in StarOffice is the emphasis on styles. Any office suite worthy of the name uses character and paragraph styles. Like inheritance in object programming, styles allow formats to be defined or edited in one place and instantly updated throughout the document.

StarOffice extends the concept of styles into new areas. In StarOffice Writer, styles can apply to pages, frames, and lists, making the application not only a word processor, but a basic-to-intermediate desktop publisher as well. Just as importantly, styles can also be applied to spreadsheet cells and graphical and normal text in a drawing or slide presentation. The extension of the concept of styles boosts productivity to such an extent that it is undoubtedly StarOffice's major competitive advantage in the marketplace.

StarOffice has a slightly different look and feel than Microsoft Office, but feature by feature, it stacks up well against the competition. MS Word users can only dream of true text frames, or of automatic lists and master documents that don't corrupt. By contrast, StarOffice users have had them for years.

True, StarOffice 7 may lack a grammar checker, but Microsoft Office 2003 lacks StarOffice's PDF export capability without Adobe Acrobat is installed. Nor does PowerPoint have anything like the graphics editing abilities of Impress, nor Excel the exhaustive catalogue of functions found in Calc. In other words, where the advantage lies depends on your productivity needs.

StarOffice vs. OpenOffice.Org -- worth the price?

StarOffice 7 is a snapshot of the 1.1 development tree. Some bits of proprietary code remain in StarOffice 7, such as the spell checker, which gives different suggestions than the spell checker. However, the main difference are the enhancements bundled with StarOffice, which include:

  • A different, more colourful set of icons, both for task bars and for StarOffice-associated files in a file manager
  • Nine proprietary fonts, ranging from the workhorse fonts Arial Narrow and Garamond to the less commonly used decorative fonts Palace Script and Broadway
  • Sixty-day setup support
  • A 482-page manual covering basic features and including some tutorials
  • An extensive set of templates for Writer and Impress

Whether these features make the program worth paying for depends on your needs, budget, and philosophy. StarOffice 7.0 retails for $80US, or $50US for 150 users. The educational version is free, except for packaging and shipping. Licences are by person rather than machine, and a single user licence allows you to install StarOffice on up to five different machines for personal use. Both StarOffice's price and licencing terms are far more generous than those of most commercial software, but cannot compare with those of a free software project like

Moreover, many of StarOffice's extras, or their equivalents, are available to users on the Internet. For example, OO Extras has a small set of templates, while hundreds of free fonts (varying wildly in quality) can be found through a quick search. Similarly, StarOffice's manuals can be found on Sun's Web site, while the site contains FAQs and other documentation links, as well as a discussion list for answering users' questions. If users are going to spend money on an office suite, they might well feel that their money is better invested in Solveig Haugland and Floyd Jones's book The Resource Kit than in StarOffice.

But, for many people, the main issue is the licensing. is dual-licenced under the LGPL and SISSL. This dual licencing allows the existence of StarOffice as proprietary software. For open source advocates, the StarOffice enhancements are probably not enough to change the fact the software is not philosophically free. The traditional business purchasing department may be more comfortable with proprietary software because the licence proves that a company stands behind it.

Either way, the arguments are apparently convincing. has had almost 19 million downloads from its official sites. Since the software can be given away freely, this total could mean that some 60-80 million copies are floating around. In comparison, the unofficial word is that StarOffice has sold some 50 million licenses -- and that was before Sun's recently announced deal to supply the Republic of China. These are respectable figures for software whose release history (beginning with StarOffice 6.0 and 1.0, the first released after the open sourcing of the code) is less than two years old. It seems likely that, long after StarOffice has overcome it general obscurity, its real competition won't be Microsoft Office, but, its own shadow.

A recovering academic, Bruce Byfield has been a product manager at Stormix Technologies, marketing and communications director at Progeny Linux Systems, and a contributing editor at Maximum Linux. He is writing a book about

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