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Chaos Manor Special Reports

Star Office 2001

Monday, October 22, 2001

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Star Office is important because it is an application that runs in both Windows and Linux. So far it has been free. It includes a word processor and spread sheet, and it is not a Microsoft product. Competition is important: it is particularly important with Microsoft since the company tends to coast in areas where it has none.

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The early versions of Star Office were useless. The latest one seems much improved. Due to pressure of work and trips I have not tried it as of today (October 21, 2001) but I have reports from Roland Dobbins and Joel Rosenberg on the latest version. Joel Rosenberg is a science and science fiction author who does many of the things I do, and his opinion is particularly valuable because, while he tends to know what he is doing with computers, computer knowledge per se is not his goal.

More anon, or maybe in an anon and a half.

Short form: Star Office is now my main word processor, and I find that I can already write with it at least as fast and well and as comfortably as with Word -- although for formatting more complicated than needed for manuscripts, Word is still easier for me, probably more because of the learning curve than anything else.

And here is his second:

Well, really, these are the Star Writer notes; I've barely played with the other programs in the suite.

* Star Writer, at least, saves documents as zip files (extension .sxw), containing the plaintext XML. Which makes sense in terms of space, but perhaps is a bit dangerous if there's any corruption to the file -- I've never seen a good way to rebuild zips. Just point your choice of zip-compatible archiver (first approximation: any) at the file, and you can look inside. This is, my guess, in the long run, the real big thing about this: XML is a flexible, documented, open standard, and it translates real, real well into other formats, and is usable by anybody who wants to.

Still, since I have plenty of disk space, I'd like the option of not using compression -- there's no reason why a "file" can't be a directory with all of the files that make up an XML document included. (Particularly useful under Windows 2000 and NTFS, since that combination supports automatic compression of selected directories, for those who don't have ample disk space.)

* Configuring key mappings, paragraph formats, and such to remain permanent isn't exactly well documented, although it may be possible. Simple work-around: map keys and create formats to your heart's content (my heart takes a fair amount of contenting; I'm used to some emacs shortcuts, and my own preference is to use the Insert key to mean "Save this file right now", and tap on it whenever I pause) in the file you're working on, save the file, then strip out all of the content and save it as a template file, which seems to preserve all those settings. I've now got a novel template, which isn't terribly complicated, given that I only use about six paragraph formats, and could easily get by with three (chapter heading, body text, and centered scene break) for most things, and am playing with one for letters.

* The lack of documentation for the macro language is frustrating, as there are some macros that I'm used to in Word -- I've got one, tied to a button, menu, and a shortcut key, that saves the file, then saves it again on my daughters' computer, then returns to where I was. (Paranoid, moi? Nah. Just been burned too often, and it usually takes me more time and aggravation to reconstruct a couple of hundred words than it does to write them in the first place.) But this is a beta, after all -- it'll come.

* A few differences on page setup things -- but it's more sensible about that than Word is, and works just fine.

* Can't figure out how to do automatic chapter numbering -- my guess is that it is doable, but it's even less obvious than it was in Word. Not a big deal.

* Both the Windows version and the Linux version seem to work identically, although I think that the Linux version is a little faster, particularly when saving to linux partitions. Still pretty fast, though.

* Minor annoyance, not terribly important: it doesn't, as far as I can tell, do search-and-replace for paragraph styles, at least not yet.

* Group conversion from .doc to .sxw is definitely not working for me, either under Windows or Linux -- but single conversion in both directions does seem to work (I'm suspicious, given the failure of it to do it in bunches), and cut-and-paste definitely does, including formatting.

* A couple of glitches trying to save to a network drive under Windows -- but I'm suspecting that's a Windows thing, and will be able to test that when I get the new Linux server that's on the shopping list after Ray Feist and I finish with Murder in La Mut.

I like the idea of the code being available for them what wants to look at it and/or play with it -- not me; I don't have the expertise, or the time -- which means that there will be extensions if it catches on.

Which it should. I've only played a little with the Excel clone, but it's fine for my needs, too. Looks to me like the combination of this and Mandrake makes Linux a viable alternative for the desktop, without the vulnerabilities that all forms of Windows are heir to, and without having to pay dime one to anybody. It'll be interesting to see how Microsoft tries to add cute new "essential" features for Word, but for right now, it's the clear winner in both the price and performance categories for me. Combine it with Opera as a browser, and your choice of Linux mail client -- Kmail is okay; I think Evolution will, eventually, be a better and safer alternative to Outlook -- and you're in. The only advantage to Windows is that the Windows GUI is still a little bit better on the eyes than XFree -- but I'm still at XFree 4.0.n, and haven't upgraded to 4.1, yet.

This way, I can choose what to boot under, and still use the same program on the same files. Definite win. It's faster and cleaner than Word, in a lot of things, and while I'm sure there's a lot of things that Word can do that Staroffice can't, they're not things I use during a working day.

All in all, I'm sold. YMMV, of course.

Which is a pretty good reason to give it a try. This could change the whole picture of Linux for Desktops.

Dr. Pournelle,

A word of caution - The staroffice beta version will expire sometime in the future which may leave a user with a whole bunch of unusable files until he purchases the final release version at whatever price it may be. I'm sure this would cause consternation among many of your readers should this occur to them...

I would personally recommend using staroffice, but realize that documents should probably be stored in a format that is readable by some other program. This goes beyond the usual backup chores however and I wonder how many would actually do this.

Sean Long

Hmm. Thanks. Hadn't thought of that.

Comments on Joel Rosenberg's review of Star Office.

To an adult professional, a couple of hundred dollars for a tool is trivial. He mentions that the current generation of Star is free almost as a distraction from the real meat of the review.

The essence of his review seems to boil down to a combination of "it's usable" and "This way, I can choose what to boot under, and still use the same program on the same files." Back when an MS split was still on the table, there was discussion that a Linux version of Word would appear later the same day that their final appeal on the break-up was denied. That the only reason MS Office is not in Linux is to try to avoid legitimising the OS. After all, they already sell a Mac version. Many of us presume that the Linux version (or at least a tuned version that runs through WINE without the user noticing the emulation) is probably already on a shelf at MS waiting for a strategic need to release it. "innovation".

The decision making process at MS "Write nothing for Linux" versus "Office is worth hundreds of dollars per sale" would be interesting to sit in on. (Or would be if I had the accounting skills to make sense of the discussion). MS decision making is beginning to look like classic IBM logic in its monopoly days. Let someone pioneer the market, clear the land and build the infrastructure. Then move in and totally dominate the market. IBM rejected the idea of entering the mainframe computer market in the forties. They rejected the idea of personal computers in the seventies (though I have a collectible unit that they test marketed in 77), until Apple, Commodore, and "Ezekial" proved the market. In the MS vs Linux case, the balance between "let's destroy Linux" and "Let's colonise Linux" is an excruciating one. Some day the elephant will move in, and a month later everyone will think that MS had invented KDE.

Greg Goss ( ) ------------------------ "Fun with rumour-mongering"

At a party over the weekend, some of us were having fun with combining the two speculations: "World War Three has started" and "The guys who wrote Lucifer's Hammer are camping in the desert". Should I be ashamed of myself?

Thank you.

Greg Goss is right on point about the value vs. cost of a tool for a professional, and I wish I'd made it in my review, which I think he fairly summarizes.

I probably should have gone more into what I think is important about the "free" part -- it's not just the zero price-point, but the freely available code that I think is the big deal, in terms of encouraging development (and with all the dangers of code-forking inherent -- the gnu emacs and the xemacs people being the best example of that being difficult without killing the project), and the fact that free (along with being available for both Windows and Linux) means there's obviously no price barrier to getting it on desktops, or to hobbyist developers coming up with neat additions (again, see emacs -- I don't really *need* a Mayan calendar, but I've got one . . . )

Professionals can benefit from development of tools for nonprofessionals, and the bigger the user share of StarOffice (and Linux) becomes, the better for all involved, it seems to me.

The thing that's impressed me about Mandrake, in particular, is how easy it's becoming for an unsophisticated user to get it up and running (although there definitely is a learning curve involved in getting it configured for somebody who insists on a good GUI display -- but give them a few months, and I think they'll have that sorted out).

------------------------------------- There's a widow in sleepy Chester Who weeps for her only son; There's a grave on the Pabeng River, A grave that the Burmans shun; And there's Subadar Prag Tewarri Who tells how the work was done.

Dr. Pournelle,

Just an FYI - Sun's download setup uses an online store frontend which can make it difficult or impossible to actually get the files they purport to have available. I can't even download and save the 500k installation file because it's a .pdf file and left-clicks automatically launch adobe acrobat which won't allow the file to be saved. Right-clicking on the target URL is futile because the online storefront uses redirection so the URL doesn't even point at the file you're trying to download and "save target as" will not work.

An hour later I'm faced with the prospect of uninstalling adobe acrobat for the privledge of downloading their installation guide which I can't even read until I then re-install Acrobat, or sticking with my old version of Office 97 which is "good enough". They've outsmarted themselves here and no matter how neat staroffice might be it's just not worth the effort I'd need to go through just to get the installation guide.


Sean Long

"Do retreatin' blisters hurt as much as advancin' blisters?"