Sun faced with StarOffice 8 challenge

Sun Microsystems has worked to improve the compatibility of its StarOffice application suite with Microsoft's Office, but it still faces an uphill climb as it tries to entice corporate users to consider the new version released on Tuesday.

"Microsoft is the dominant platform, and it would be very hard to have a catalyst for a major switch," said Dan Agronow, vice president of technology at The Weather Channel Interactive. "If you already have the investment, you're not going to throw it away."

Agronow noted that switching Web browsers is relatively painless, since any choices made by end users won't affect an entire company. But because Office users share documents and content, the potential for file incompatibility remains an issue despite Sun's efforts to address the problem in its StarOffice 8 release.

Mike Prince, CIO at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse has used a beta copy of StarOffice 8 since February and has been receiving 25 to 30 Microsoft Office documents per day. Prince said the only interoperability problem involved fonts in about six documents out of the more than 2,500 that he has opened. "With earlier versions, the compatibility wasn't as flawless as what I've observed with (StarOffice) 8," he said.

All of the Burlington, N.J.-based retailer's 350-plus stores, which have been using earlier versions of StarOffice, will upgrade to the new version, Prince said. But he expects users at corporate headquarters who now use Office -- particularly merchants who exchange documents with suppliers -- to continue to do so.

"People who are Office users are not anxious to switch," he said. "They don't want any change to their desktops. And that's fine. We're not out to stamp out Office. But I would encourage anybody to look at it, because it's an excellent product."

Michael Dortch, an analyst at Robert Frances Group, said Sun has dealt with Office compatibility concerns sufficiently in StarOffice 8 for IT executives to focus on cost and ease of use. "These are now fights that Sun can win more often," he said.

But corporate users may not be in a hurry to swap out Microsoft Office, since the 2000 edition is supported through 2009, the XP version through 2011, and Office 2003 through 2013, according to Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner. Only users of Office 97 have an impetus to move.

"The Microsoft products are still serving people pretty well, so there's not a huge rush to get off," said Silver, adding that he gets few client inquiries about open-source products.

StarOffice is based on, an open-source technology shepherded by an organization that Sun set up in 2000. Sun said last November that the improved Office compatibility features being added to StarOffice would first appear in a new release.

But with StarOffice 8, Sun is trying to distinguish its product from the open-source software by adding a user configuration tool that lets IT administrators manage user settings and policies as well as a macro conversion tool, said Iyer Venkatesan, a product-line manager in Sun's client systems group. The company still can't guarantee that StarOffice will be able to read all Office macros. But, Venkatesan said, "we get the more popular ones."

Sun is also staking a claim that StarOffice 8 is the first commercial office suite to use the XML-based Open Document file format that the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards finalized. The state of Massachusetts recently announced plans to support the format.

In StarOffice 8, Sun also has improved the ability to import Office headers, footers, tables, bullets, pivot tables and other elements, according to Venkatesan. It also doubled the number of rows in a spreadsheet to bring that figure up to par with Excel, he said.

The previous disparity, along with Microsoft's Excel Solver tool, has kept a small percentage of users on Office at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, according to Philip Wright, the university's director of computing and networking services. But workstations in campus computer labs and the library have been running StarOffice since January 2004, and many faculty members have also made the switch.

Sun announced this week that the University of Toronto at Scarborough has standardized its student computing resources on StarOffice. The Ontario-based school runs StarOffice on Solaris, Windows and Linux and provides its Mac OS X users with NeoOffice, a Macintosh-supported version of OpenOffice.

Wright said that users have generally been pleased with StarOffice and added that he hasn't had a single problem opening an Office file -- although he has encountered an occasional minor formatting difference.

One of the major reasons the university was attracted to StarOffice was its support for Windows, Linux and Solaris. Cost was another bonus. Wright estimated the university saved at least US$52,000 by using StarOffice, which he said is free to academic institutions.

For corporate users of StarOffice, volume pricing starts at US$35 per user for a company with 10,000 users, with the fee adjusted for companies with fewer users, according to Venkatesan. The manufacturer's suggested retail price for StarOffice 8 is US$99.95; the download price is US$69.95.

Gary Baxter, CIO at Maine Employers' Mutual Insurance, said he's willing to give the new StarOffice a look, even though he found the user interface to be "terribly clunky" when he tried it over a year ago.

Baxter said Microsoft Office is too expensive, particularly since the vast majority of the insurer's 250 end users take advantage of only a small percentage of the functionality in Office 2000 Professional. He said he'd prefer a lighter version of Office.

"It's a wonderful application," Baxter said, "but most of it is just not applicable to us."

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