As users grumble about Microsoft's software licensing charges, Eric Doyle assesses an open source alternative for corporate desktops
Decision time is drawing near as Microsoft's 31 July deadline for companies to sign up to its new licensing scheme approaches. Those hardest hit will be smaller businesses that lack the bargaining muscle to negotiate special deals.
One course of action being considered by a number of companies is to partially abandon Microsoft Office in favour of an open source software answer.
The current focal point is the open source productivity suite Openoffice, which has also been released as a commercial package - Staroffice - by Sun Microsystems. Both suites are available for Windows operating systems, so adoption does not mean abandoning the Windows environment for Linux or Unix.
They also offer the possibility of rolling out the same suite across Windows, Linux and Sun's Solaris Unix. However, using these suites does mean giving up some of the advanced features offered by Microsoft Office.
Sun claims that Staroffice's £52.99 price tag is justified because of the extras it offers and the fact that, unlike Openoffice, technical support is available. The price compares favourably with Microsoft's price at Amazon.com of more than £400 for Office XP.
Although Sun offers free support forums and FAQs, it does charge for support by e-mail and telephone. Purchase of Staroffice allows one free support incident but after that it charges £14.50 for e-mail support and £18 for any future enquiries.
Unlike Openoffice, Staroffice has database support and comes with clipart and other "add-ons" such as document templates and extra designs for the presentation software. The database support takes the form of Adibas, which allows connection to existing databases with either a dBase format or JDBC/ODBC interfaces. It will also allow data from an existing address book to be made accessible to the suite's applications.
Probably the best way of looking at these alternatives is that Openoffice corresponds roughly with the Standard Edition of Microsoft Office, while Staroffice equates to the Professional Edition - but with some important differences.
The principal difference is that Microsoft Office comes with Outlook, a combined e-mail and scheduling package. There is no e-mail support in either of the open source suites. Sun recommends using Netscape, but there is also the possibility of using Outlook Express, which comes free with Windows.
Another difference is in the facilities offered within the elements of Staroffice.
Microsoft Office is designed for the power user who needs data sharing and collaboration capabilities - the majority of users do not require any of these features.
Those who need Web publishing capabilities will find Staroffice a rather poor alternative, with no equivalent of Microsoft Frontpage to turn to. Documents can be saved as HTML files in Staroffice's Writer word processor but there is no help given on how to publish these to a Web site.
One benefit that Staroffice brings is its native file format, which is based on XML. This means that the document format has a high degree of portability and future-proofing. It also means that files are about a quarter of the size of equivalent Microsoft-format files.
For anyone with an investment in Microsoft file formats, there is excellent support both for loading and saving these files in Staroffice. Sun cannot guarantee 100% compatibility but the import/export capabilities in all of the suite's applications are the best available. Sadly, there is no support for Smartsuite formats.
Staroffice Writer is probably the best feature of the suite. It offers most of the facilities of Microsoft Word, allowing tables of contents, footnotes, headers and bibliographies. On top of this, it takes Microsoft's autocorrection facilities to a higher level by offering not only on-the-fly spell checking but also autocompletion of words.
As you type, the system remembers words that have been used and will offer the complete word after the user has typed in four or five letters. If the offered word is not the required one, continuing to type will remove the highlighted offering. It does take a little getting used to but, once mastered, it can speed up the slower typist's efforts considerably.
One weak point of Writer is the lack of a simple macro development environment. Starofficebasic is not a patch on Microsoft's macros and requires a high degree of skill.
Staroffice Calc is beginning to look like Microsoft Excel but without the Web-linking features. Formulae can be developed without the need to refer to column and row numbers. For example, something like D15 + P24 can become total cost + VAT. Calc also has a version of the pivot tables used in Excel, where columns and rows can be repositioned to offer new insights into the data on display.
As far as compatibility with Excel files is concerned, Calc seems to do well, but where there is heavy use of graphical data representations the images may need a bit of tweaking.
Staroffice Impress is the equivalent of Microsoft's Powerpoint slide show. It is complemented by Draw, a basic drawing package that can produce illustrations and diagrams for use in presentations or within a Writer document.
Slides can be re-ordered by drag and drop and can also have embedded video or audio to add punch to a presentation. Transition between slides is also well supported, with more than 50 fades and wipes available. Thumbnails of the slides, which Powerpoint uses in a preview pane, are not available.
Like Calc, some of the Microsoft-format files imported into Impress need to be tweaked, but this is only to be expected. Most imported files appear to work sufficiently well for this not to be too worrying.
Staroffice is well worth considering for users who do not make heavy demands of their productivity suites. Those who rely on Microsoft macros will have to think carefully about adoption. Fortunately, with Openoffice being available as a free download, it offers the opportunity to try before you buy.
The advantage of being able to roll out the same suite across a range of operating systems is also attractive, although there is, as yet, no support for the Apple Macintosh. An early version of the Mac software is in development on the Openoffice.org Web site, but workers in a mixed environment of Windows and Mac systems could be better served by Microsoft Office for the time being.
Staroffice is a very capable suite but must still be considered a budget version. Its £52.99 price tag looks good, especially in light of the fact that a user can deploy it up to five times on different PCs for personal use, giving far better value than Microsoft Office XP.
The downside is that its features lack the polish, Web awareness and collaboration capabilities of Microsoft Office. However, Staroffice is a young product and will improve as time passes, whereas the past two releases of Microsoft Office have shown it to be a mature product which struggles to show sufficient improvement to justify upgrading with each release.
Key features of Staroffice 6.0
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- Interoperability with Microsoft Office: users can read, write and edit MS Office files to maintain their current investment
- XML file formats: users can create complex documents and simple Web pages and are not locked into proprietary formats
- Familiar graphical user interface: only minimal retraining is needed, but features are found in different menus to MS Office
- Low cost: compared to MS Office, Staroffice has a lot to offer for little cost.