StarOffice 8 Learns From MS Office

Basking in the limelight of LinuxWorld, Sun used the occasion to show off a working mock-up of the next version of its StarOffice productivity software. In many ways, StarOffice 8 represents the suite's continued maturation.

Built-in usability enhancements conform to the look and feel of industry standard functionality, configuration options and language support is enhanced, and interoperability with Microsoft Office is more comprehensive. Sun has also has thrown in a newly redesigned database engine and software development kit (SDK).

In its quest to produce a substitute for MS Office, Sun has taken care to soften the transition. Usability enhancements are intended to make the software easier to learn and use, reducing migration and training cost. Features such as toolbars and menus, down to headers and footers, resemble Office and have adopted Office terminology.

For instance, "AutoPilot" has been renamed "Wizard." Notable changes were made to mail merge and a new feature named "Format Paintbrushes" preserves copy and paste styles like Microsoft Office Smart Tags.

What's more, StarOffice has been programmed to behave as a native application -- with native widget rendering -- for every supported operating system such as Solaris, Linux and Windows.

No matter how successful it is at erasing any observable differences between StarOffice and Microsoft Office, Sun must labor to ensure seamless compatibility under the hood. The 8.0 release of StarOffice now has the same set of AutoShapes that Microsoft provides in PowerPoint, and has vastly improved handling of Excel spreadsheet files.

Despite it emphasis on Office, Sun has not forgotten third parties. StarOffice 8.0 has improved PDF support, which for the first time allows quality selection for images, as well as well PDF exports. Some new formats such as Xforms are also supported.

Under Sun's guidance, StarOffice has continued to adhere to open standards. The default file extension for StarOffice files has been changed to the OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) Open Document Format (.odx). Sun maintains backward compatibility to StarOffice 7.0 and previous versions.

In addition, Sun has updated its database engine to HSQLDB, which is open source and Java driven, and has moved to a new front end. Sun claims that it is now much easier to create forms, queries and reports. The software supports most major database types and connectors.

In an appeal to the enterprise, a configuration manager will be bundled with the Java Desktop Configuration Manager. This tool helps manage user settings such as profiles, policies, security and authentication, and access controls.

Since StarOffice fares well overseas and has a broad base of supported languages, the software also has a multi-language installation feature that can be selected during installation.

Lastly, Sun has continued its push -- which began with StarOffice 6.1 -- to court the enterprise sector with extended customization that allows customers to include more functionality or change interface elements. The updated SDK has included API concepts and sample code written in several popular 3G languages.

StarOffice is a free public download.

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