March 25, 2002

Review: StarOffice is worth at least $50 more than OpenOffice

- By Robin "Roblimo"
I have OpenOffice build 641C and a pre-release copy of StarOffice 6.0 running side by side, and I have been looking at the differences between them. OpenOffice is free in both senses of the word, while StarOffice is not. I am generally happy with OpenOffice, but I can also see why some people -- and many corporate users -- would be willing to pay up to $100 for StarOffice.

The biggest difference between the two is format support. OpenOffice does a fine job with .doc, .ppt, .xls, and .rtf files. StarOffice adds support for dBase and databases in general, which OpenOffice does not have. If you work with simple databases in an office setting -- that is, with databases on the level of something like MS Access -- this feature alone is going to make you prefer StarOffice over OpenOffice.

You might say that free OpenOffice is roughly equivalent to Microsoft's $479 Office XP Standard, while StarOffice is comparable to $579 Office XP Professional. In this context, StarOffice is probably worth $50 or $100 more than OpenOffice to most corporate users, especially if StarOffice includes manuals and support, and OpenOffice does not.

No word yet on StarOffice pricing

The only official pronouncement we've heard from Sun so far on StarOffice pricing is "under $100." Off the record, we have heard that $49 and $99 are the two price points under heaviest consideration, and that no final determination has been made. We may even see a dual-price strategy, depending on the level of support that is included. For many corporate users, the big hold-up for Linux desktop adoption has been software support. Now they can get it -- for a price -- from Sun for a centerpiece office suite, along with operating system support contracts from distribution publishers like Red Hat, Mandrake, and SuSE, all for a lot less than Microsoft charges for equivalent levels of hand-holding.

The psychology of pricing is interesting. Sun may be better off going with $99 than $49. Many years ago, in Guadalajara, Mexico, my grandmother met a street artist selling paintings for a dollar or two each. My grandmother told him to include nice frames (that he could buy for less than one dollar apiece from fellow half-starved locals) and up his prices to $50 or more. He thought she was nuts, because no one he knew could afford to pay that much for a small painting. Annie (my grandmother) fronted him money for a dozen frames and helped him with the repricing, and sales soon took off -- not to locals, but to American tourists who thought $50 to $100 was a great value for an original painting of a pastoral Mexican scene enclosed in an attractive, hand-carved wooden frame. A year later the artist had his own gallery and a house with indoor plumbing -- and Annie got some of his best work for free and had a friend for life.

I think Sun's marketing people realize that those who are satisfied with free OpenOffice or only want to to use Open Source software are unlikely to "upgrade" to StarOffice no matter how little they charge for it, and can easily find other database solutions for Linux. StarOffice has more templates then OpenOffice for slide presentations, not to mention stationery, label, business cards, and newsletter printing, and comes with more clip art and fonts, but those who have the Free/Open Source software mentality have no problem making (and sharing) their own templates and illustrations. The market for StarOffice is commercial users for whom $100 is next to nothing if that outlay will save them even a few hours' worth of training, troubleshooting or graphics preparation time.

Competing with MS Office

Sorry, there are no Smart Tags in StarOffice. If your company decides to use StarOffice instead of Microsoft Office, this is a feature you'll have to learn to live without.

You will also find that StarOffice is not tied as tightly to a browser or email program (except for its own rather lame internal ones) as MS Office is tied to Explorer and Outlook. This reduces convenience, but at the same time it enhances security, a tradeoff decision every computer-using individual and company is forced to make all the time. I will admit that I, personally, do not find the lack of a direct tie between StarOffice and my browser and email software to be a noticeable problem. Both OpenOffice and StarOffice feature the wonderful Linux capability (really an X Window thing) of "highlight + one click" copying -- which I find far faster and easier than the Windows/Mac multiple keystroke cut/paste approach -- so moving text and graphics back and forth between StarOffice and Mozilla is no big deal.

One place StarOffice falls down -- and falls down hard -- is its inability to work with WordPerfect files, something Microsoft Word does reasonably well. I thought this was a feature StarOffice 6 was supposed to offer. Perhaps it simply wasn't in the prerelease review copy I am using, but it will be in the final "for sale" version. I have several attorney friends who do pro bono public interest work and occasionally turn to me for editing and proofreading assistance, and it would be nice to be able to work with them directly in the text format they prefer -- and in the case of attorneys and judges, that's usually WordPerfect.

Another item on my StarOffice "wish list" would be the ability to create and edit .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) files, something that is readily available for MS Word and Corel WordPerfect. Give me this feature, even if it's a plugin that costs $50 over and above whatever Sun decides to charge for StarOffice, and they'll get my money.

On the graphics manipulation front, I think StarOffice and OpenOffice already do everything most office workers will ever need. Artists, engineers, and designers will not be satisfied with StarOffice's rudimentary graphics capability, but for those of us who only do simple things, it's more than good enough already, as is its ability to serve as a rudimentary WYSIWYG HTML editor.

And don't forget price. Instead of spending more than $500 per desktop to equip an entire working group with Microsoft Office, a company that respects its stockholders (or a government agency that respects taxpayers) could give most employees free OpenOffice, and buy StarOffice only for those who need its additional features. Instead of $500,000-plus in MS Office license fees for 1,000 desktops, you might see 800 desktops equipped with OpenOffice and 200 running StarOffice, which would bring the total license cost for all desktops down to $20,000 if Sun decides to charge $100 per copy, and to $10,000 if Sun decides $50 is enough. Even at $100 per copy, it would cost about one fifth as much to give StarOffice to all workers as it would cost to give them all Microsoft Office. Even assuming the MS Office XP Professional upgrade price of $329 rather than the $500-plus price of the full version, you are still looking at considerable savings. Yes, Microsoft will cut deals for volume users, but Sun has traditionally done the same for large customers, and many corporate customers are worried about Microsoft's latest licensing schemes, to the point where Microsoft has delayed their implementation because of customer anger.

Then there is the fact that StarOffice works exactly the same on Linux, Unix, and Windows. Yes, advances in Wine are making it possible to run MS Office in Linux, but to do this you still need a copy of (expensive) MS Office. I went the other way, myself. My wife recently purchased a new laptop that came with Windows XP, and we will maintain a Windows partition on it for software tests and Web site browser verification, but instead of blowing hundreds for a copy of MS Office, I installed StarOffice on both the Linux and Windows partitions. The CD Sun sent me had both versions on it, so why not? So far we have not been able to tell any difference between the way StarOffice acts in the two operating systems, except for the fact that StarOffice (like almost everything else) runs slower in Windows XP than it does in Linux.

And then there's the Mac problem. An OpenOffice Mac OS X port is supposed to be coming soon, but Sun either directly denies that there are plans for a Mac version of StarOffice or dithers about the possibility, depending on who you ask, the time of day, the phase of the moon, and possibly other factors. This is sad. True "all popular platforms" capability, combined with a single multiple-OS site licensing arrangement for companies and government agencies whose computing needs are diverse enough to require a number of different operating systems for different purposes, could be a major StarOffice sales booster.

StarOffice is a viable product

Viable and perfect are not the same thing. StarOffice is far from perfect. But you can say the same about MS Office, AppleWorks, WordPerfect Office, and every other multipurpose home or office application suite.

The big bulldog in this market is MS Office, with WordPerfect a little terrier nipping at its heels. I tried WordPerfect Office for Linux when it first came out, and I was not impressed. Even if it had been free, and StarOffice 5.1 (the latest version at the time) had cost $50, I would have gone with StarOffice. I tried hard to like Applix "back in the day," but again, I stuck with StarOffice even though I often cursed its clunkiness, Windows-like features (including double-click file opening and multiple key-pressing for cut and paste operations), its hunger for my entire desktop, and generally poor look and feel. Although I have used Microsoft Office on others' computers, I have never felt any desire to own my own copy. Maybe that's just because I'm cheap -- so cheap that I used to write a column called Cheap Computing -- and always try to look for the absolute best value for my computing dollar, which is why I drifted toward Linux in the first place. But I have never wished for a Linux version of Microsoft Office, not even one that sold for $99 or less. I have never found it a particularly compelling product, although its success in the marketplace has certainly proved that it is a viable one.

Would I, personally, buy StarOffice 6.0? Probably not, in its present form, for my own personal use. It doesn't offer anything I really need that OpenOffice doesn't already give me for free. But if I had semi-skilled (in the computer sense) employees working for me who needed manuals and support and all the rest of the goodies that are typically included with commercial software, I'd happily pay $99 per seat for StarOffice (although I'd certainly try to negotiate a volume discount if I needed more than five or ten copies), and I would most definitely choose StarOffice over Microsoft Office.

There are enough thrifty corporate managers out there whose workers are capable of switching from MS Office to StarOffice with little or no training to make a viable market for this office suite. It may never be as large a market as Microsoft has developed for its similar product, but you never know. If Sun can keep StarOffice prices down while steadily improving its functionality and the number of features it offers, in a few years it might give Microsoft Office some serious competition in the commercial desktop software marketplace.

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