Freeware Solutions: An Alternative to Office

SAN FRANCISCO (07/28/2000) - Looking for an alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s Office? Want to save a few hundred dollars? If you're pinching pennies or if you just don't word-process or crunch numbers enough to justify the cost of Microsoft's suite, consider Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice. Not only is it free--completely free, not just free for personal use--it's also available across multiple platforms, supporting Windows 9x and 2000, OS/2, Linux, and Solaris operating systems. StarOffice is easy to use, and it includes most of the features you'll find in other suites.

StarOffice is Internet savvy. It includes a Web browser, an e-mail client, and more. Its scheduling application lets you collaborate with others, track tasks, plan events, and sync with Palm-based PDAs. And of course, StarOffice includes a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation creator (think PowerPoint), and a database. Unlike most application suites (including Microsoft's), StarOffice presents all these tools to you in one window. In other words, instead of loading Word to write a letter and Excel to work up some figures, you just open the StarOffice program and select the sort of task you want to work on. This approach may seem a bit alien at first, but it's easy to get used to.

On the following pages, we'll show you how to grab your own copy of StarOffice, set it up, and get to work on new documents and existing Microsoft Office documents. Make sure you've got around 250MB of disk space, and click the link below to dive in.

To download StarOffice, you'll have to visit Sun's Web site at the first page, select which version of StarOffice you want (most likely the English/Windows edition). On the next page, click Register. (We're assuming you've never downloaded or used StarOffice before. If you have, you can enter your StarOffice username and password here, if you remember it.) Now you'll get a registration form to fill out. Only the fields highlighted in red are mandatory, and you can choose some options at the end of the form that will keep your mailbox clear if you don't want to be contacted by Sun or others.

After submitting the registration form, you'll see a license agreement. Once you accept it, you'll arrive at the download page at last. Select a server from the list, then click the Download StarOffice link.

You'll notice that this is one hefty download: The English/Windows version is about 80MB. That's not much of a problem if you're on a broadband connection, but if you're connecting with a modem, you're in for a wait. You might want to let the suite download overnight.

If you experience problems grabbing all 80MB--especially over a dial-up connection-- Sun offers some pointers to help you out. As Sun suggests, you may want to use a helper application such as Download Accelerator, which can restart a file transfer where you left off if your connection is broken.

Once You've Got the File

The installer program you've downloaded has a jigsaw puzzle of a name, probably "so-5_2-ga-bin-windows-en.exe." Use My Computer or Windows Explorer to navigate your way to the folder in which you saved the file. Give the file a double-click.

A wizard will take you through the rest of the installation process, but there are a couple of gotchas that can crop up:

You may receive a message stating, "No Java Runtime Environment was found." At this point, you can choose to either disable Java and JavaScript support in StarOffice (used mainly by the built-in Web browser) or install Sun's Java Runtime Environment. To disable Java and JavaScript, simply click OK in the dialog you're staring at. To install Java/JavaScript support, click Install. A separate setup program will launch, and when it is complete you'll return to StarOffice Setup, which will now let you know that a compatible Java Runtime Environment is installed.

If you're going to use StarOffice's database module (by far the least friendly part of the program--we recommend it only if you're familiar with databases in general already), you need to download the Adabas database engine. There's a download link on the same Web page where you started your StarOffice download.

Grab the Adabas installer and run it after you finish the main StarOffice installation program. Restart your computer before opening StarOffice and creating a database.

First Steps With StarOffice

The installation ordeal is over, so let's see what this baby can do. Click Start, Programs, StarOffice, StarOffice to get started.

The first thing you'll see is the AutoPilot Internet Setup dialog. If you want StarOffice to become your default Internet application, taking over your e-mail and browsing activities, then leave all the check boxes checked, and click Next. More likely, you'll want to remove those check marks before proceeding through the rest of this AutoPilot.

Once you're through, you'll see StarOffice's view of your desktop, including My Computer, the Recycle Bin, and other familiar icons. To begin working, you've got a few options.

To create a blank word processing document, click StarOffice's Start button (at the lower left of the StarOffice window--right above the Windows Start button if StarOffice is maximized) and select Text Document.

- For other types of documents, head to that same Start button and select Spreadsheet, Presentation, Drawing, or another option.

- For some help creating and formatting a document, click File, AutoPilot and select a document type from the submenu. (Think of AutoPilots as StarOffice wizards. They save you time by getting the basics out of the way quickly.) - To open a calendar/event planner, point to the gray vertical bar at the left of the StarOffice window (beneath two very narrow buttons marked with a right arrow and a thumbtack). Click once on this bar to expand the StarOffice Explorer. (If you want this element to stay on your screen, click the right-arrow button at the top of the gray bar.) Now click once on the plus sign next to Tasks & Events, then double-click Events. (Double-clicking Tasks will pop up the StarOffice to-do list.)- If you need to import a single Microsoft Office document, use the File, Open command. Navigate to the document and double-click it. StarOffice will usually import the file without any further help from you.

- Just as you opened a Microsoft Office file with the File, Open command, you can use the familiar File, Save As command to export a file to Microsoft Office format. Be sure to select the format you want from the File Type drop-down list.

- Covering all of StarOffice's features would take several dozen Web pages, so at this point we're going to leave you free to explore and learn. One last tip before you go: StarOffice's Help system is very complete and can be reached by selecting Help, Contents. When Help pops up, click the binoculars icon in the lower toolbar to search through all the documentation or begin clicking links in the main Help window. If you're not sure whether StarOffice can handle a particular task, hunt through Help a bit. You're likely to find instructions for doing whatever it is you want to do.

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