A first look at StarOffice 6.0

In a past life, I was responsible for communications software at Electronic Data Systems Corp. that allowed health-care providers to transmit Medicaid health claims from their TI Silent 700 terminals -- and later from IBM Corp. PCs -- to EDS for processing. We gave the software to any healthcare provider who asked, and not out of altruism, either. It was clearly in our best interest to receive the claims in a machine-readable format rather than paying data-entry operators to enter the claims for us.

Elsewhere in EDS, other divisions used our software with a different client, Blue Cross, with one important difference. They sold it to providers for US$300 instead of giving it away. Much to my amazement, it was just as popular in places where it was sold -- Colorado and New York, if I remember correctly -- as it was in Texas, where it was free.

The reason I recall this now is because it will be interesting to see the impact on popularity, if any, following Sun Microsystems Inc.'s decision to sell the StarOffice suite instead of giving it away. Perhaps Sun is taking to heart the comment made by Microsoft executive Doug Miller who said while dissing Linux, "There really isn't much value in free."

You can buy Sun StarOffice Suite 6.0 from a number of sources at varying prices. Sun sells it online for US$75.95, for example. StarOffice is included with Mandrake 8.2 PowerPack Edition. If you are a Ximian Inc. Red Carpet Express customer, it is a free download over its high-speed pipe.

How high speed, you ask? Well, on my 1-gigahertz AMD K7-powered desktop box with 512 megabytes of RAM on a cablemodem, I had StarOffice 6.0 downloaded and installed in about 10 minutes total time. That's quick. When it was finished, StarOffice showed up in the drop-down Programs menu of the Ximian GNOME desktop toolbar. The splash screen shows up about 5 seconds after clicking, and the default word processing document appears about 15 seconds later. Subsequent startups were slightly faster.

StarOffice 6.0 is quite a bit different from the earlier versions. No longer does it attempt to co-opt your desktop and want to be your e-mail client as well. If the e-mail module still exists, it is hidden. I could find no signs of it anywhere. What 6.0 does provide is an excellent suite of word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics, and database tools. All of which Sun touts as Microsoft Office compatible. That compatibility coupled with multiplatform offerings (Linux, Solaris, and Windows) greases the skids for those wanting to cut the ties that bind to Redmond.

The first thing I tried to do with StarOffice 6.0 was import the Microsoft Word-formatted document I created using Gobe Software Inc.'s gobeProductive (GP).

Brief aside about gobeProductive 3.0

The distortion of the PNG image I tried to use for the banner last week wasn't the fault of gobeProductive. It was an operator error. When I created the PNG file, I used the GIMP with its default resolution of 72 dpi. GP defaults to 96 dpi to display images. I was also told that while GP has a dialog to adjust the display resolution, it is not yet functioning perfectly in the alpha version I was using, so it "stretched" the image from 72 to 96 dpi. The reason I didn't see the problem when I saved the image as a GIF is that GIF doesn't remember the display resolution used at creation time, so gobeProductive wasn't constrained when displaying it. To get rid of the slight but annoying distortion of the photograph on page 1 after I loaded the Microsoft Word document created with gobeProductive, I simply deleted the image from within StarOffice and inserted it again. Voila. No distortion.

StarOffice 6.0 rich in features

StarOffice provides many other tools that can be used to produce a newsletter. The ability to produce mailing labels, for example. Using a supported database (and StarOffice 6.0 can talk to just about any database out there) or simply a StarOffice spreadsheet, it's easy to either create mailing labels.

Mail merge? No problem. StarOffice can handle that, too. Need an image to spice up a document? You can select images and sounds from a wide array of included galleries: 3D effects, animations, arrows, flow charts, maps and more. Just click the gallery icon to display them, select the category you want, drag and drop the object to the document, and click the gallery icon once again to turn it off.

Tools include a spellchecker, hyphenator, and thesaurus. Everywhere I turned I found the refinement and polish of a mature product. The spreadsheet is just as rich in features as the word processor. If the toolbar icons are unfamiliar to you in either application, just hover the mouse above them and an explanation of what they do appears. That's very handy, given the number of items on the toolbars.

Need more help? Context-sensitive help is available. I was exploring features, for example, and decided to poke about with templates. I opened File|Templates|Organize and realized that I was in unfamiliar territory. The popup menu for the function included a Help button.

When I clicked on the Help button, a two-paned help window appeared. On the right was a detailed explanation about organizing templates. On the left was a complete index into all areas of help, from "1/2 Auto correct" to "Zooming Out."

Fonts? About 50 come with StarOffice. It's a complete package. It's no longer free as in beer, but it's a good buy, especially if you get it as part of a bundle (such as a Linux distribution or Ximian's Red Carpet Express). There is a difference in the license depending on how you obtain it. If you pay full price, you are entitled to install it on five machines. If you get it as part of a bundle, only on one. In either case, compared to the offering from Redmond, StarOffice 6.0 is a great buy.

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