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Feature: Office Software

Sun wrestles itself with StarOffice 9

By Bruce Byfield on November 19, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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StarOffice 9 reminds me of the classic Monty Python skit in which Graham Chapman wrestles himself. Although StarOffice is being aggressively presented as an alternative to Microsoft Office, it seems to be equally marketed and bundled to compete against OpenOffice.org, the free software project that is sponsored by Sun and that shares a common code base with StarOffice. The trouble is, the differences between the two have diminished with each release, until, with StarOffice 9, you have to wonder who the potential customers might be.

Much of the marketing material sent out prior to StarOffice's release emphasizes the product's advantages over Microsoft Office, describing it as "the leading alternative" (even though it is well behind in market share), and, at $60 for the standard version, significantly cheaper. The material even tries to take advantage of the fact that StarOffice has stayed with traditional menus and toolbars not followed Microsoft Office's lead and converted to ribbons. "Is new always better?" the material asks, and, pointing to the ribbon, "Does this look like a Windows application?"

But Sun also gives attention to differences between StarOffice and OpenOffice.org. Unlike OpenOffice.org, Sun states, StarOffice comes with indemnity against patent infringement, and comes with consulting and support services -- apparently forgetting that Sun has offered support for OpenOffice.org for some time now.

This sort of self-wrestling is perhaps inescapable, because, although StarOffice 9 is a major advance over the previous release, with enhanced notes and multiple page views in Writer, tables in Impress, improved VBA support throughout, native support for Mac OS X, and hundreds of other enhancements, most -- probably all -- of these improvements are shared by OpenOffice.org 3.0. What's more, OpenOffice.org was released more than a month ago, making StarOffice's enhanced features seem like old news.

The fact that OpenOffice.org is released under the GNU Lesser General Public License and StarOffice under an unusually generous but still proprietary license doesn't help, either. For anyone who investigates, the question remains why anyone should bother with StarOffice when the same features are available free of cost and free of restrictions in OpenOffice.org.

Difference through bundling

As in the past, Sun tries to answer this question by bundling StarOffice with extras, yet some of these are diminished compared to the offerings in earlier releases. For example, where six years ago, StarOffice 7 came with unlimited 60-day setup support, the download and standard editions of StarOffice 9 offer only three service calls over a 60-day period.

Similarly, the 482-page manual that shipped with StarOffice 7 is now reduced to an 88-page getting started guide available in PDF format. The new guide is clear and thorough as far as it goes, but the extra value is definitely diminished.

Even the proprietary fonts like Arial Narrow, Garamond, and Broadway that once shipped with StarOffice are gone.

What is left of StarOffice's traditional offerings is useful non-essentials. For example, the clip art collection is a mixture of arrows, callouts, and other items for diagrams, and cartoon clip art for such categories as communication, computers, people, and time. I wonder how many people will ever use them more than a couple of times. Besides, if you want clip art, you can download it for free from the Open Clip Art Library.

In the same way, the collection of templates is a welcome change from OpenOffice.org's insistence on shipping with next to none. All the templates are well-organized and -designed (although Sun blue tends to predominate in the choice of colors), and the selection of presentation backgrounds and structures is handy. However, you can download the same selection from the OpenOffice.org extension site in the Professional Template Pack.

The same is true of the extensions that you can install separately from the StarOffice 9 CD. Extensions such as Sun PDF Import and the Sun Presenter Console are powerful additions to an office suite -- but, again, you can download them for OpenOffice.org from the extension site.

Sun's last effort to provide value is to load the CD with MySQL, Netbeans, and Mozilla's Thunderbird email reader and Lightning calendar. The inclusion of the Mozilla applications is a shrewd decision, given that one criticism of OpenOffice.org and StarOffice is their inability to match Microsoft Office's integration with similar tools. By now, though, you can probably guess the refrain: Since all these items are free software, you can download them separately if you want them. The StarOffice 9 CD does not provide a unified installer to help you add these extras with fewer mouse clicks; you have to drill down into separate folders for them.

The target market

The strongest indicator of the problems that Sun faces with StarOffice is the change in price. Six years ago, StarOffice 7 sold for $80, or $50 for 150 enterprise users. Today, StarOffice 9 sells for $60, or $25-90 for enterprise users, depending on the number of seats.

The price change suggests two things. First, although $80 is still a bargain for a proprietary office suite, Sun has had to lower the price to remain competitive. Second, Sun is focusing on enterprise users as the main market for StarOffice.

Although Microsoft Office remains StarOffice's main rival in the market, Sun's changes were probably not made in response to anything Microsoft has done. Instead, StarOffice's pricing and bundling seem designed to appeal to those who do not want the bother of tracking down and installing extra features for themselves. However, individual users who are unaware of where to find these extras are becoming fewer.

In contrast, enterprise users are less likely to be aware of the do-it-yourself possibilities, and more likely to be prepared to pay for convenience. More than anything else, what StarOffice represents is a successful mimicking of a traditional commercial software box using free software. To an enterprise user, this mimicry might be attractive, but to anyone with much knowledge of free software, the comfort of a traditional relationship with a software vendor may not be worth the price for easily available extras.

In this light, StarOffice 9 is a testimony to the success of free software in general, and OpenOffice.org in particular. Sun has not been particularly successful in building a community around OpenOffice.org, yet the efforts it has made are apparently enough to make StarOffice less attractive than it was.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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on Sun wrestles itself with StarOffice 9

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Sun wrestles itself with StarOffice 9

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on November 19, 2008 10:22 PM
I thought it said on the website that it only costs $35.

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Re: Sun wrestles itself with StarOffice 9

Posted by: nanday on November 20, 2008 06:19 PM
That's the download edition price. I would have mentioned it, except that the information wasn't available when I was writing.

Thanks for the addition.

- Bruce Byfield ("nanday")

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Its about business not home users

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 78.86.173.177] on November 19, 2008 10:45 PM
Some of the speculations in this article are downright outrageous: "Sun's changes were probably not made in response to anything Microsoft has done. Instead, StarOffice's pricing and bundling seem designed to appeal to those who do not want the bother of tracking down and installing extra features for themselves.".

In fact, anyone who worked at a company with more than 50 employees knows that support contracts are big bucks. What better than to offer commercial support for your own branded product?

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Star Office has always "competed" with OpenOffice.org

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.217.238.251] on November 20, 2008 05:41 AM
Nothing new there. Maybe the "gap is closing" between the two, but so is the price. As the first commenter noted, the price I see on the Sun website is US$34.95. http://www.sun.com/software/staroffice/get.jsp - now, that is for the download version, the retail box edition that say to "Order a boxed copy of StarOffice Software at Avanquest." doesn't show up on the linked website, at least not for me after 5 minutes of searching and browsing. So I don't know how much that is. But still, the point is, the software is easily purchased for $35.

For $35, getting a manual, clip art, pre-installed templates, and 60 days of support, it's not that bad. And for the companies leaning toward the multi-seat liscensing, there might be more goodies (like some sort of networked install, IDK). It's really hard for me to see any reason to be upset with Sun, other than maybe dropping the included fonts. If bundling some clip art, templates, and other items puts some money in their pockets, good for them. I mean, the money to fund all the support they give to the OpenOffice.org project has to come from somewhere. How long do you think OpenOffice.org would last without Sun's backing?

Honestly, you can't please some people! They lower the price and make the free version much better than it has ever been, offer the professional add-ons to the free version for free - and you whine because the cheaper-than-ever professional version isn't much better than the free one. Maybe you'd value StarOffice more if they closed shop on the free one. Sure, the project could be forked or taken up by "the community" - but who is going to pay for the hosting? Who is going to provide the full-time professional coders that Sun has on staff? This whole article is a huge slap in the face to one of the most important Open Source / Free Software Supporting companies there are. Next you'll be bitching that Novell is "Wrestling Itself" between SuSE Linux Enterprise and OpenSuSE.... whateva u say, brah.

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Merge the two efforts OpenOffice.org and StarOffice and just give it away!

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.66.232.98] on November 21, 2008 03:39 AM
What Sun should be doing with StarOffice is just get rid of OpenOffice.org (not the community, but just the product name) and consolidate to a single known brand: StarOffice. The biggest problem I have seen with people who know something about office suites, most don't even know that StarOffice and OpenOffice.org are the same office suite. This causes confusion in the marketplace. My recommendation to Sun is, consolidate OpenOffice.org and StarOffice and carry the free and open torch as 'StarOffice' and for those enterprise customers, sell support services for StarOffice like technical and developer support and maybe other things that can't be free for whatever reason. Having both out there is not doing either one any good.

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Sun wrestles itself with StarOffice 9

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 59.183.28.2] on November 23, 2008 06:09 AM
Too many opinions are presented as facts in this article. Far too many.

"the leading alternative" (even though it is well behind in market share)
_alternative_, and OpenOffice is the same as StarOffice, just without the assured support.

"Is new always better?"
This is a question everyone's asking given Vista's poor record. So again, what's wrong?

Red Hat, Suse, Ubuntu, Jasper, JBoss, MySQL (before SUN acquired it), Mandriva
all do the same thing - free opensource and paid support.

"you have to drill down into separate folders for them"
that's a valid point. agreed. Next-Next is always better.

"StarOffice 9 sells for $60, or $25-90 for enterprise users, depending on the number of seats."
Enterprises are willing to pay, and willing to save on license costs. FOSS has real credibility now - Google, OpenOffice, cloud computing and all - and most importantly, the product OO 3 is much better than earlier versions. I have heard a few stories of corporates switching to OO and falling behind deadlines - with the diminishing difference between OpenOffice and StarOffice that will not repeat so often - so what's wrong with that?
People with money _do_ pay companies who give support.

Lastly, you dont get geeks in every office out there and those geeks aren't always allowed to suggest OpenOffice as an alternative by managers.

SUN has a problem, but it's not the one you are pointing out - it is one of advertising - people simply dont know SUN exists and has a decent/competitive set of desktop products. That is the problem. Not the one you are referring to.

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Re: Sun wrestles itself with StarOffice 9

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