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StarOffice (SO) and OpenOffice.org (OOo) are the leading rivals of Microsoft Office. Despite the difference in names, the two are mostly variations on the same program. Both are developed largely by engineers at Sun Microsystems, but OOo is free software, and SO is proprietary. Functionally,however, the two programs are nearly identical. Each shares the same general characteristics and has features that compare favorably with MS Office's, and which you use depends largely on your philosophy rather than any difference in functionality.
SO and OOo are the modern descendants of a program developed by a German company called StarDivision. Sun Microsystems bought StarDivision in 1999, and released the StarOffice code under a dual license, with OpenOffice.org under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) and StarOffice first under the SISSL license and later under a proprietary license of its own. Today, the code base for the two programs is developed largely together, with packaged versions of SO being a snapshot of the code at a particular time plus a few extras.
SO and OOo consist of five main applications:
Unlike MS Office, these programs are not a suite of originally independent programs, but applications that share much of the same code. This design explains why SO and OOo occupy about two-thirds of the disk space that MS Office does -- and why just installing the applications you need won't save you as much space as you might expect.
It also means that the applications share several sub-systems, including the ones for charting and drawing, and have a high degree of inter-operability that allows data to be easily shared between programs, or for a file for one application to be embedded in another application. In addition, many of the windows and dialogs are the same in each program -- Draw and Impress in particular have similar editing windows -- making the applications as a whole easy to learn.
The interface of the two programs is heavily dependent on floating windows. Some of these, like the toolbar for lists, are context-dependent, popping up when the mouse cursor is in an appropriate position. Others floating windows open only when you choose.
Some, like the Gallery of clipart or the Function List in Calc, open docked to one side of the editing windows. Others, like the Navigator and Styles and Format window, are free floating. The Navigator is particularly useful for moving around a long document, as well for rearranging blocks of texts or obtaining an outline view of a document.
Another characteristic that makes SO and OOo stand out from most office programs is the heavy emphasis on styles: format settings that are defined in one location, then applied as needed, making it easier to make global changes than if all formatting was done manually.
Almost every word processor offers character and paragraph styles, but SO and OOo also include page, frame, and list styles. Moreover, they also extend the concept of styles to the other applications, something that other office programs either never do, or else do very weakly. You do not have to use styles in SO and OOo, but, if you don't, advanced features -- for instance, multiple header or footer styles in a text document -- may be unavailable to you.
SO and OOo also have extensive support for macros or scripts, as well as add-ons written in such languages as Java and Python. Writers of macros are well-enough organized to have their own download page, but writers of add-ons are fewer and less organized, making them harder to find. However, perhaps the best-known add-on is extendedPDF, which gives enhanced control over exporting to PDF format. Wherever you find them, you can quickly add both macros and add-ons to your SO or OOo installation to get extra functionality.
In fact, some have been so successful that they have eventually been added to the basic program. Java add-ons are especially popular, so if you do not already have Java installed, you may want to check the box on the OpenOffice.org download page to include it, or, in StarOffice, to make sure that you select Java when running the installation program. Otherwise, you may not be able to use some bits of the program, such as some of the template wizards in Writer.
As rivals to MS Office, StarOffice and OpenOffice.org have to support Microsoft's formats and offer similar functionality. Their list of options include a number of items designed to help you share files with MS Office, including the option to save files in MS Office-compatible formats by default. Files moving back and forth between MS Office and these programs can fail to maintain complex formatting, but, the simpler the document is, the more likely the transfer will avoid problems.
In another nod to MS Office, the two programs have many tools in the same position as in MS Office. At the most, you may have to watch for occasional changes in names. For instance, Calc uses the term "datapilot" for "pivot tables." But, for the most part, you can move between MS Office and SO or OOo and transfer much of your knowledge.
So which set of office features is superior? That depends very much on your purposes and work habits. Writer is much stabler than MS Word, especially for long documents, crashes less often, and recovers more readily the few times that it does crash. It also features a more dependable master document feature than MS Word and lists in which items can be moved about or lists nested in each other without disrupting the number sequence.
The jury is still out on the differences between Base and Access, Base's ability to connect with a wide variety of database formats probably gives it an edge. Draw, of course, has no direct equivalent in MS Office, but, in addition to being a general graphics program, it also contains elements similar to those of MS Publisher and Visio, two applications available in some versions of MS Office.
By contrast, a comparison between Impress and PowerPoint is more mixed, with Impress having a better set of drawing features and PowerPoint having the advantage in its ability to work with sound files. Similarly, although advanced users complain that Calc can be much slower than Excel in calculating complex formulas, average users are unlikely to notice any great difference. Other considerations include the fact that SO and OOo lack a grammar checker (although several are available as add-ons if you search for them) and some of MS Office's collaboration tools, but include export to PDF format, which MS Office lacks.
As for HTML editing, MS FrontPage easily wins the features race over the limited HTML support in Writer. However, neither produces very clean code, and therefore should probably be avoided, especially for professional work.
In the end, probably the most accurate overall statement that can be made is that, for most kinds of work, you can expect SO and OOo to be functionally equivalent to MS Office, with only small pluses and minuses either way.
Although SO and OOo are in many ways identical, they do have some differences. Some of these, like SO's use of some proprietary code for its spellchecker and thesaurus, matter very little because they do little to affect functionality.
However, other differences will probably have a larger effect on your choice:
Which of these differences matter most will depend very much on your circumstances. On the one hand, if the free price and freedom from proprietary license constraints count the most with you, then you will probably find that OOo is worth the effort of scouting around for extras to set it up exactly as you like.
On the other hand, in a more traditional corporate environment, SO's patches and technical support may seem easier. In still other cases, the languages or operating system you are using may determine your choice.
Given that OOo is free for the download, consider exploring it first and seeing how you cope. Then, if you decide that you need the conveniences available in SO, you can easily make the switch. After all, no matter which one you use, you'll be working with much the same code and functionality.