OpenOffice 1.0
StarOffice is reborn as an free open-source office suite 1.0
Windows, Macintosh OS X, Linux, Sun Solaris
In 1999, I waxed enthusiastic in these pages about StarOffice 5.0, a productivity suite by German company Star Division. For prices ranging between free and approximately $250, you could get a suite that included a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program, presentation program, database, PIM, e-mail client, newsreader, and Web browser. It also ran on more operating systems than Microsoft Office. At the time, I was taken with the idea of a free (or cheap) suite, but I hesitated to recommend it for power users who needed to regularly work with Office files. File compatibility was almost, but not quite good enough for serious work, and the lack of VBScript might put off hardcore macro coders.

Since then, a few things have happened: Microsoft Office has gotten more expensive, Microsoft rival Sun has bought Star Division, and the open-source movement has made huge strides. This confluence of events has led to an interesting situation: StarOffice 6.0 is available for about $120 and, unlike its predecessor, works under Linux; Microsoft has irked the corporate world with its new Software Assurance licensing scheme; and, an open-source Sun spinoff group, has released, well,—a free version of StarOffice 6.0 for all the major platforms (the Mac OS X version is in the works, with a developer build currently available for download).

Very interesting, indeed.

OpenOffice—for the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to the suite as OpenOffice and the development group as—makes an even more convincing case as an alternative than StarOffice 5.0 did. The most noticeable difference is, I think, the smartest: they threw stuff away. The funky desktop and the PIM, e-mail, news and browser programs are all history. (The database software isn't there either, but it is available in StarOffice.) And OpenOffice retains one of my favourite features, which is the ability to open, say, a spreadsheet while working on a text document, leaving OpenOffice to sort out which application it needs to activate.

Heartened by these focused design decisions, I threw myself into testing, aiming to push as much as I could at StarOffice 5.0's weak point, file compatibility. On odd-numbered days, I would work on documents exclusively in OpenOffice's Writer and Calc; on even-numbered days, it was back to Microsoft Word and Excel. (And yes, that does include this article.)

The up side is that I didn't lose any data. Not a scrap. For the most part, the problem was one of presentation. For instance, the same custom bullets sometimes came out differently between Writer and Word, and date formats and text colours changed slightly between Calc and Excel. Especially curious was how one spreadsheet would occasionally cause scrolling problems when opened in Excel. Using Page Up or Page Down would leave the screen unchanged, but cause the cursor to jump to the appropriate cell—usually offscreen. I discovered that if I turned off Freeze Panes and turned it on again, everything worked fine until the random behaviour struck again.

But that minor annoyance was nothing compared to the frustration I felt when a Word file using columns, continuous section breaks, and graphics failed to open properly in Writer. The first set of columns shifted to the following page, which was easily corrected; at the same time, one graphic moved from the bottom right corner of the first page to the top left corner of the second page, and trying to move it back proved to be harder than it should have been. I later realized that this document had a layout similar to the one that gave me trouble in StarOffice 5.0. (The problem appears to be unique to documents with both continuous section breaks and floating graphics.) Also irksome is Writer's inability to do a word count for only part of a document.

On the flip side, there are some nice treats that I missed when I returned to Microsoft Office. Writer offers a souped-up version of Microsoft's AutoComplete that tries to match what you're typing to any previously typed word of six letters or more—for instance, halfway through "automobile" it might assume you're using "automatic" again. It sounds irritating, but it's quite helpful; if Writer has guessed wrong, you can just keep typing as if nothing happened. If it's guessed right, simply pressing Enter completes the word and you can keep working. Toward the end of a long article, I found myself flying through sentences in no time.

Microsoft Office and OpenOffice each have their own idiosyncrasies, and both have features that different people will consider indispensable. Evenly matched as they are, it's hard to recommend one over the other, though the OpenOffice price tag (or lack thereof) is, I'm sure, a great motivator—especially for people like me, who have more computers than Office licenses. In my opinion, you should get OpenOffice right now and see if it's right for you. It'll cost you nothing but time—and I imagine that sound I hear is the collective knee-knocking over in Redmond.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (March 2003)
Eight people - eight lives - one universal groove