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Review: Open-Source Office Suites Compared

In search of an alternative to Microsoft Office, we test OpenOffice.org, StarOffice from Sun, IBM's Lotus Symphony, KOffice for Linux, and AbiWord.

Some minor things still annoy me. Example: The range of tools at the bottom of the document window isn't very self-explanatory -- you'd probably never know what the little box labeled "STD" is for, or the one next to it that just shows an asterisk, unless you looked at the manual. (Documentation is the last resort, not the first, when you're dealing with software aimed at regular users.)




Star Office is OpenOffice with support, bundling, and deployment -- for a price.
(click for image gallery)

Bear in mind that the "stock" OpenOffice.org version isn't the only one out there. GoOO is built from the same source code, but mixes in some additional optimizations for speed. I've used it interchangeably with the regular OpenOffice.org build, since it's completely document-compatible, and it's both slightly faster and every bit as stable as the original. Also check out the PortableApps version of OpenOffice.org (versions 2.4.1 and 3.0 are both available), which can run from removable drive or simply be used as a way to try out the program without the hassle of a formal install.

StarOffice 9
Sun Microsystems
StarOffice

StarOffice is Sun's commercially-supported edition of OpenOffice.org, so from the outside there barely seems to be any difference at all between StarOffice and the original OpenOffice.org. Fire it up and apart from some branding changes you're presented with exactly the same interface -- and, even after some fairly in-depth peering around, the same feature set. So what's here that's worth paying $34.95 to $54.95 for (or, for that matter, worth paying anything at all for)?

The answer is three things: support, bundling, and deployment. In the same way Canonical provides paid support for Ubuntu, Sun offers the same for their edition of OpenOffice.org. The exact mix of support features varies depending on which edition you're using. The download version and the Standard edition (i.e., the boxed product) both come with a maximum of three support incidents in 60 days; the Enterprise version, which is licensed per-desktop and comes with additional deployment tools, requires a separate support contract.

The "bundling" aspect of StarOffice means you get the open source Thunderbird mail client and its Lightning calendaring extension along with the suite itself -- that is, if you elect to purchase the Standard or Enterprise editions. Those using the download version need to add those components manually, which in essence is no different from getting the stock OpenOffice.org build and doing the same.

Other things included only in the Enterprise edition are the Microsoft Office macro converter tool (OO.o lets you run VBA macros as-is, not convert them to OpenOffice.org's native macro language) and NetBeans extensions for the suite. In short, they're tools for those who've made a sizeable existing investment in MS Office, and want to roll that investment over into something a little less closed-ended.

One area where Sun's made major contributions to the OpenOffice.org ecosystem, apart from StarOffice itself, is the galaxy of add-ons they've written for the system. The PDF importing and editing extension is good for basic tweaking of text on a form, but not as good for more advanced manipulation. Some PDFs -- including ones I produced in OpenOffice itself -- didn't import at all. The weblog publishing extension works with all the major blog APIs -- Wordpress, Movable Type, Metaweblog, etc. -- but the features available are paltry compared to other, dedicated blog clients.

I especially liked the MediaWiki extension, though, which lets you edit and publish directly to or from sites that use the MediaWiki software (Wikipedia, for instance) without needing to know the MediaWiki markup language.

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