November 19, 2008

Sun wrestles itself with StarOffice 9

Author: Bruce Byfield

StarOffice 9 reminds me of the classic Monty Python skit in which Graham Chapman wrestles himself. Although StarOffice is being aggressively presented as an alternative to Microsoft Office, it seems to be equally marketed and bundled to compete against, the free software project that is sponsored by Sun and that shares a common code base with StarOffice. The trouble is, the differences between the two have diminished with each release, until, with StarOffice 9, you have to wonder who the potential customers might be.

Much of the marketing material sent out prior to StarOffice's release emphasizes the product's advantages over Microsoft Office, describing it as "the leading alternative" (even though it is well behind in market share), and, at $60 for the standard version, significantly cheaper. The material even tries to take advantage of the fact that StarOffice has stayed with traditional menus and toolbars not followed Microsoft Office's lead and converted to ribbons. "Is new always better?" the material asks, and, pointing to the ribbon, "Does this look like a Windows application?"

But Sun also gives attention to differences between StarOffice and Unlike, Sun states, StarOffice comes with indemnity against patent infringement, and comes with consulting and support services -- apparently forgetting that Sun has offered support for for some time now.

This sort of self-wrestling is perhaps inescapable, because, although StarOffice 9 is a major advance over the previous release, with enhanced notes and multiple page views in Writer, tables in Impress, improved VBA support throughout, native support for Mac OS X, and hundreds of other enhancements, most -- probably all -- of these improvements are shared by 3.0. What's more, was released more than a month ago, making StarOffice's enhanced features seem like old news.

The fact that is released under the GNU Lesser General Public License and StarOffice under an unusually generous but still proprietary license doesn't help, either. For anyone who investigates, the question remains why anyone should bother with StarOffice when the same features are available free of cost and free of restrictions in

Difference through bundling

As in the past, Sun tries to answer this question by bundling StarOffice with extras, yet some of these are diminished compared to the offerings in earlier releases. For example, where six years ago, StarOffice 7 came with unlimited 60-day setup support, the download and standard editions of StarOffice 9 offer only three service calls over a 60-day period.

Similarly, the 482-page manual that shipped with StarOffice 7 is now reduced to an 88-page getting started guide available in PDF format. The new guide is clear and thorough as far as it goes, but the extra value is definitely diminished.

Even the proprietary fonts like Arial Narrow, Garamond, and Broadway that once shipped with StarOffice are gone.

What is left of StarOffice's traditional offerings is useful non-essentials. For example, the clip art collection is a mixture of arrows, callouts, and other items for diagrams, and cartoon clip art for such categories as communication, computers, people, and time. I wonder how many people will ever use them more than a couple of times. Besides, if you want clip art, you can download it for free from the Open Clip Art Library.

In the same way, the collection of templates is a welcome change from's insistence on shipping with next to none. All the templates are well-organized and -designed (although Sun blue tends to predominate in the choice of colors), and the selection of presentation backgrounds and structures is handy. However, you can download the same selection from the extension site in the Professional Template Pack.

The same is true of the extensions that you can install separately from the StarOffice 9 CD. Extensions such as Sun PDF Import and the Sun Presenter Console are powerful additions to an office suite -- but, again, you can download them for from the extension site.

Sun's last effort to provide value is to load the CD with MySQL, Netbeans, and Mozilla's Thunderbird email reader and Lightning calendar. The inclusion of the Mozilla applications is a shrewd decision, given that one criticism of and StarOffice is their inability to match Microsoft Office's integration with similar tools. By now, though, you can probably guess the refrain: Since all these items are free software, you can download them separately if you want them. The StarOffice 9 CD does not provide a unified installer to help you add these extras with fewer mouse clicks; you have to drill down into separate folders for them.

The target market

The strongest indicator of the problems that Sun faces with StarOffice is the change in price. Six years ago, StarOffice 7 sold for $80, or $50 for 150 enterprise users. Today, StarOffice 9 sells for $60, or $25-90 for enterprise users, depending on the number of seats.

The price change suggests two things. First, although $80 is still a bargain for a proprietary office suite, Sun has had to lower the price to remain competitive. Second, Sun is focusing on enterprise users as the main market for StarOffice.

Although Microsoft Office remains StarOffice's main rival in the market, Sun's changes were probably not made in response to anything Microsoft has done. Instead, StarOffice's pricing and bundling seem designed to appeal to those who do not want the bother of tracking down and installing extra features for themselves. However, individual users who are unaware of where to find these extras are becoming fewer.

In contrast, enterprise users are less likely to be aware of the do-it-yourself possibilities, and more likely to be prepared to pay for convenience. More than anything else, what StarOffice represents is a successful mimicking of a traditional commercial software box using free software. To an enterprise user, this mimicry might be attractive, but to anyone with much knowledge of free software, the comfort of a traditional relationship with a software vendor may not be worth the price for easily available extras.

In this light, StarOffice 9 is a testimony to the success of free software in general, and in particular. Sun has not been particularly successful in building a community around, yet the efforts it has made are apparently enough to make StarOffice less attractive than it was.


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