NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, January 2003
OpenOffice/StarOffice 6 vs Microsoft Office
Recap of November meeting presentation
by Ken Hreha
(click to email author)

Have you ever wondered why people don't drive a Kenworth or Peterbuilt tractor-trailer truck to and from work each day ? Or why a private pilot would choose a Cessna 172 over a Boeing 747 ?. Or why someone would use a Murray riding lawn mower to cut their lawn instead of a CAT Earth Mover ? Ridiculous comparisons ? I know ! After all, why would any rational person go to such extreme "over kill" just to get a simple, routine task done ? However, that's exactly what people do almost every time they buy a copy of Microsoft Office ! Just like these examples represent extreme "over kill", so does using Microsoft Office represent over kill for the majority of computer users !!

Up until now, PC user's had little choice if they wanted to be able to access and create Word Processor / Spread Sheet / Presentation Graphic files that were compatible with the Microsoft Office format. Although Word Perfect, Lotus SmartSuite and a few others have claimed to be compatible with the de-facto standard in office software, the truth was, they were not. About the best a home or small business user could hope for was that Microsoft's $100.00 "WORKS" program would do the trick. (NOTE: Up until the release of Star Office in May 2002, Microsoft's suggested retail price for WORKS was $99.00 ! It has since been reduced to $49.00.) The need to read and write Microsoft compatible formats left users with no choice but to pay whatever price the Redmond software monopoly demanded. That is... at least up until now !

Frustrated by Microsoft's steadily increasing fees; their ever more restrictive licensing practices; costly new upgrade policies; endless security issues; activation code copy protection; not to mention Microsoft's arrogance and almost total lack of support to all but the largest of users; has left many people searching for an alternative to Microsoft's "Office" suite. That wish was granted with the release of OpenOffice.org and it's commercial counterpart, Star Office version 6 earlier this year.

Building on the Star Office version 5 programming code that Sun Microsystems bought from it's German creators a few years back, Sun released the code to the "Open Source Software Community". After 18 months, slightly over 10,000 programmers across the planet volunteered their time to create just over 7.5 million lines of code to create OpenOffice.org version 1. This is complete MS-Office compatible office suite complete with a MS- Word compatible word processor; an MS-Excel compatible spread sheet; an MS-Power Point compatible presentation graphics program; PLUS a Math Editor; Vector Drawing Program; HTML Editor and Desk Top Publisher. And in keeping with the practices of the Open Source Software Community championed by Linux, the program is entirely FREE to anyone who wishes to download the 74-MB files from their web site. (http://www.openoffice.org) Versions are available for Windows 9x; Linux; Solaris; Mac10; and the Unix operating systems. Since the program utilizes XML, files created under one operating system can be readily accessed and used by any of the other supported operating systems.

However, (for those who feel that anything that's free can't be any good), there's the $74.95 commercial version of OpenOffice.org, known as Star Office 6.0. This is a commercially packaged and boxed version of OpenOffice that contains all of the modules noted plus numerous additional features. These additional features include; an excellent 400+ page user's manual; a data base module; additional translators; clip-art; extra fonts; a Thesaurus; plus quality assurance testing and certification by Sun Microsystems; as well as fee based technical support by Sun. Naturally, the package contains a professionally labeled distribution CD containing versions for all the noted operating systems.

Users will find that the look and feel of all versions of Star Office and OpenOffice.org are identical. And while the interface is slightly different than Microsoft's, it's not hard to rapidly get accustomed to. The hot key combinations, (such as CTRL-P to "print" / CTRL-S to "save"), are the same as in the Microsoft versions. So are the menu bars and nearly all of the icons. Probably the single biggest change most users will encounter is the location of the "Page Setup Commands", which are under FORMAT --> PAGE, instead of FILE--> PAGE SETUP. Also, both versions default to Metric units and European paper sizes. This can be disconcerting the first time one goes to print something out !

Testing by the author and others have shown that OpenOffice.org and Star Office do a reasonably good job in importing and exporting files into and out of Microsoft Office 97 / 2000 / XP formats so long as they are not heavily formatted. Also, macros and VBA applications created in Microsoft Office do not always get translated accurately by either OpenOffice.org or the Star Office 6 programs. Both also tend to be a bit "slower" to load and to respond to keystrokes and mouse movements than MS-Office applications. This can be frustrating at times if one is working on a heavily formatted document, such as a page layout done in the Desktop Publisher module. However, both OpenOffice and Star Office will run just fine using a Pentium 200 / 96-MB RAM / 2-MB video / Windows 95 system. Try running Office 2000 or XP on that hardware platform !!

The bottom line one must ask themselves is whether or not all of the ultra high end features available in Microsoft's $500.00+ Office Suite are really needed ? They also must look at their computer system and operating system as well. Office XP requires much more power than OpenOffice or Star Office do. (As a side note, the next release of Microsoft Office due out in the spring of 2003 will require nothing less than a system running Windows 2000 or XP. Given the hardware requirements of XP one must again take into account if the TOTAL cost of Microsoft Office is truly justified ?) Analyze how you use your software then decide if a Mac Truck is needed when a Mercury Cougar could do the job required for significantly less cost !!

Click here to return to top