Sun's StarOffice 8 boasts better Office compatibility

Sun hopes the new version of its productivity suite may convince IT administrators to take another crack at comparing this release against Microsoft's ubiquitous Office software.

A new release of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s desktop productivity software, StarOffice 8, promises big improvements over the last version when it comes to compatibility with Microsoft's Office software.

Whether or not this latest version of Sun's software catches on has less to do with an IT administrator's willingness to venture beyond Microsoft's Office and more to do with whether end users are open to something different than Microsoft Office.

"At the end of the day it's up to the users," said Tony Iams, vice president and senior analyst at DH Brown Associates Inc., in Rye Brook, N.Y. "The IT administrators might like the idea of replacing everything with StarOffice, but if the users don't like it, it will be hard to deploy."

They live with it every day and they use the features," Iams added. "If they are not satisfied, you will get resistance."

StarOffice 8 is a commercial version of the Open Office 2.0 open source code. With this version, Sun promises several advances on the features front. First, the software can convert a "majority" of Office macros. "I can't say this is 100%, but we've hit on the most popular APIs," said Iyer Venkatesan, product manager for StarOffice at Sun, in Santa Clara, Calif.

StarOffice 8 includes two tools, a macro conversion wizard and a document analysis wizard that analyze Microsoft Office documents and lets an IT administrator know what the risks are to a conversion, Venkatesan said.

StarOffice 8 also has an improved user interface for the applications contained in the suite, which include a word processor, a spreadsheet, plus presentation, drawing and database capabilities. "It looks like PowerPoint and has a spreadsheet that is similar to Excel," he said.

Even IT administrators who have no plans to deploy StarOffice 8 will watch its development closely. At Data Research and Analysis Corp., an Alexandria, Va.-based defense contractor, Microsoft Office will remain the desktop of choice in an environment that is dominated by Windows systems.

But David Glick, the company's network administrator, said he has his eye on StarOffice, particularly since it supports the OASIS open standard as its default file format. And that translates into better integration with Microsoft Office. OASIS is the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a not-for-profit, international consortium for the development, convergence and adoption of e-business standards.

What's one big reason not to convert to StarOffice today in Glick's view? "Support," Glick said. "It's easy to find an expert in Microsoft Office but [I'm] not sure about StarOffice. No one wants to get up to give a big PowerPoint presentation only to find out that [the program] doesn't work with some features."

Sun's Venkatesan said Sun provides online support. But, he said, with the StarOffice 8 usability improvements and similarities to Microsoft Office, customers shouldn't experience support problems.

For many shops, StarOffice could provide a good, low-cost alternative to Microsoft Office, said another expert. Organizations are seeking to reduce costs in ways that do not increase costs for staffing. So having a product that looks similar to what people are used to and is largely compatible with what they have would fit that bill, said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at IDC Corp., a Framingham, Mass., market research company.

"If an organization does not use templates with complex macros [and] if they are just using standard templates and spreadsheets, they will find little difficulty using StarOffice," Kusnetzky said.

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