Sun StarOffice: Compatibility is Job One

Iyer Ventkesan has no easy task. As senior product manager for StarOffice, his chief responsibility is creating a suite of productivity software that gives users a compelling reason to make the switch from Microsoft Office, the market leader.

Thus, Ventkesan asked his developers to ensure the compatibility with Microsoft's product, as well as making a transition to StarOffice easier on the end user. "We have made it real easy for the Microsoft Office user to use StarOffice right away," he told BetaNews.

While the product has featured Office compatibility since its inception, it's never been perfect. Some files did not import or open correctly, and others lost formatting when converted. Headers and footers were not supported, and StarOffice users could not access password-protected files.

Ventkesan said the biggest complaint from StarOffice users was a lack of Office macro support.

"Obviously, this was a big compatibility issue," he admitted. Macros allow Office users to automate repetitive tasks quickly, such as speeding up routine editing and formatting of documents.

With StarOffice 8, the aforementioned problems are fixed. Ventkesan said the "most significant feature requests" saw the most work, such as macro support and protected file compatibility. Also, the program itself got a facelift, and most Office users will be able to use StarOffice 8 with little or no learning curve.

Wizards have been added to help in creating mail merges and to create and work with databases. In addition, exporting files to be viewed in Microsoft Office and other programs has been improved over prior StarOffice releases.

"[StarOffice users] were able read files, but when they sent them back they ran into issues with previous versions," Ventkesan said.

It's not a perfect solution, Ventkesan admits. There still will be issues as Office's proprietary format and the OpenDocument format that StarOffice uses are different in many ways," he said. "We can't be 100 percent compatible."

The openness of StarOffice 8 is a point of pride for the company. "We are the first communications office suite to use the OASIS OpenDocument format," Ventkesan boasted. He added that the program had used XML as its default format since 2002 and StarOffice 6.

At the same time, Ventkesan said Microsoft's promises of openness in its file formats ring hollow. "It will still be proprietary XML," Ventkesan argued said about Redmond's new Open Office XML format. "We've always felt our implementation of XML is truer to what XML should be."

Ventkesan says he doesn't believe that Microsoft will support the OpenDocument format fully, "although it's a step in the right direction."

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