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Free for the asking: A competitor for Microsoft Office
technofile  by al fasoldt

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Free for the asking: A competitor for Microsoft Office

Bit Player for June 6, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

Bit Player for June 6, 1999

Competition is an amazing thing. Now that Microsoft is under attack from the government and from an upstart operating system, companies that make competing software are getting bolder. One rival is even giving away a superb office suite just to entice you out of the Microsoft camp.

The rival, Star Division, has been around since 1985, but until now it's concentrated on sales in Europe. With Microsoft on the defensive during the government's anti-monopoly lawsuit and with the free Linux operating system drawing attention from dissatisfied Windows users, Star Division is getting serious about the U.S. market.

Star Division is now giving away StarOffice for Windows, Linux and other operating systems. There is a version that runs on Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT, as well as a version for Linux, OS/2 and Solaris. Star even has a version that runs entirely in the Java language.

I tested both the Windows and Linux versions of StarOffice. The Linux version didn't even need to be downloaded. It came free with Caldera OpenLinux 2.2, which costs only $40 to $50. (Go to for information.)

All these versions of StarOffice can be downloaded without charge. Microsoft Office 97, by contrast, lists for $600 and discounts for $200 to $300.

StarOffice has most of the basic functions contained in Microsoft Office 97. It has a modern word processor that competes with Microsoft Word, a scheduler with daily, weekly and monthly views, a spreadsheet that works the way Excel does, a presentation program that rivals PowerPoint, graphing and image-creation software and, of course, an e-mail program and a Web browser.

All the component programs in StarOffice work reasonably well. The presentation program is particularly good and the word processor is outstanding, with an excellent full-time spell checker that works just like the one in Word 97. The Web browser is not likely to make you give up Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, but it's well behaved and fairly quick.

To find out more about StarOffice and where to get the download, go to There are no strings attached to this offer. The suite is free.

There's a lot of good news about StarOffice. But first, the bad news:

StarOffice has an unfortunate interface. The interface forces everything in StarOffice to run inside a StarOffice main window. This window is made to look like a desktop, and you can either fight it by making the main window normal size or you can make it the full size of your display. If you make it normal size, you can run all StarOffice programs full size (they will fill the main window, in other words). If you make the main window the size of your desktop, you can run StarOffice programs in cascaded windows. By default, StarOffice takes over the entire screen, and that's bad programming. My advice: Run it in a normal size window and make all the StarOffice programs full size.

The rest is unalloyed good news.

The word processor does a better job handling Microsoft Word documents than Word itself does, and it is much friendlier at all the things it manages than either Word or WordPerfect. It can open documents written in any of these formats: text (any format), Word 6, Word 95, Word 97, Excel (all recent versions), PowerPoint (all recent versions), Lotus 1-2-3, PostScript and many kinds of image formats, along with a few dozen others. It can save documents in many of these formats, too.

The mail program handles HTML mail and RTF mail in addition to standard no-frills mail, and can work perfectly with any number of separate accounts. (Microsoft Outlook Express, the company's standard e-mail software, cannot work with more than one account seamlessly.) The presentation software is what PowerPoint should have been all along, and the spreadsheet does a good job, too. The word processor in StarOffice is also an HTML editor, and it did basic HTML editing without a fuss.

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