Software Selection Tips: StarOffice Vs. OpenOffice - InformationWeek

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11/20/2008
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Software Selection Tips: StarOffice Vs. OpenOffice

Now that Sun has released StarOffice 9, it's a good time to answer an important question: What, exactly, is the difference between OpenOffice.org and StarOffice?

Now that Sun has released StarOffice 9, it's a good time to answer an important question: What, exactly, is the difference between OpenOffice.org and StarOffice?Some users might ask a somewhat different question: Are there any differences between OpenOffice.org and StarOffice, except for the fact that the former is free and the latter is not?

Even Sun has a hard time getting past this issue, judging from its own attempts to compare the relative merits of StarOffice and OpenOffice.org. (It doesn't help that links to OpenOffice.org are much easier to find on Sun's software Web site than links to StarOffice!)

Nevertheless, there are some real distinctions between the two products, even if those differences are far more relevant to enterprise users than to those in the SMB market.

First, however, it might help to explain the exact relationship between StarOffice and OpenOffice.org:

  • OpenOffice.org is a business productivity suite. It includes integrated word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics, database, and supporting applications. It is community-developed software, released completely free of charge under a standard open-source software license. Technical support is available free of charge from community-sponsored sources (forums, mailing lists, etc.) or as a fee-based service from various third-party providers.
  • StarOffice is also a business productivity suite. In addition to all of the components included with OpenOffice.org, Sun Microsystems bundles a number of additional applications and software components. Sun charges a fee for StarOffice, which it distributes under a relatively lenient, but still proprietary, software license.
  • On a feature-by-feature basis, both OpenOffice.org and StarOffice look and work exactly the same way, using almost exactly the same source code. Back in 2000, Sun released the StarOffice code base under an open-source license, creating the OpenOffice.org project and providing key support to the project's developer community. Since that time, Sun's developers have actually used "snapshots" of the OpenOffice.org code base for corresponding StarOffice releases.
In practice, then, the new and updated features released (link: PDF) in StarOffice 9 this week are functionally identical to those released in OpenOffice.org 3.0 last month. Combined with the fact that OpenOffice.org doesn't cost a dime to use, one can understand why Sun's StarOffice marketing team faces such a tough task.

Still, once you get past the look, feel, and feature set, StarOffice delivers additional features that some users will find valuable, and perhaps even essential:

  • StarOffice provides additional service, technical support, and technical documentation as part of its licensing fee. Specifically, StarOffice includes three free technical support incidents within 60 days, and Sun also sells extended support packages for enterprise or high-volume users. Sun can also provide custom migration and training services for enterprise StarOffice users.
  • Sun ships a number of third-party components, including clip art, templates, and a PDF import extension, that OpenOffice.org users must download separately or seek out from third-party sites.
  • Sun subjects the StarOffice code base to a more formal quality-assurance process, as compared to the community-based QA testing used for OpenOffice.org. For enterprise users, Sun also provides access to a formal escalation and resolution process, working with Sun's support and software engineering staff to fix critical bugs.
  • Sun indemnifies StarOffice users against any patent-infringement lawsuits or other intellectual property litigation related to the StarOffice/OpenOffice.org code base.
As a Linux.com article recently pointed out, many users won't find a lot of added value lurking in these differences. It doesn't help that Sun no longer provides 60 days of unlimited support for StarOffice users; that what used to be a nearly 500-page printed manual is now an 88-page "getting started" guide; or that many of the same Sun-sponsored service and support offerings are available (for a price) to OpenOffice.org users.

Also, keep in mind that most, if not all, of the software Sun bundles with StarOffice is available, free of charge, to OpenOffice.org users -- they just have to find and download it themselves.

It's those last two bullet points, however, that really tell you where Sun still hopes to find a "sweet spot" for StarOffice -- in the enterprise market. Both indemnification and a more formal software QA process are designed to appeal to enterprise IT decision-makers who must adhere to strict corporate and legal guidelines when they assess and select software (and especially software that may interact with corporate financial data or customer records).

The same enterprise focus applies to Sun's price structure for StarOffice, which -- although far cheaper than Microsoft Office even for a single-seat license -- scales nicely for enterprises provisioning acres of employee desktops.

Here's the bottom line: While StarOffice.org remains relevant to large enterprises or to companies working in strict regulatory environments, it holds relatively few charms for the SMB market. If your smaller business is looking for an alternative to Microsoft Office, my advice is to look first at OpenOffice.org unless you have very specific reasons to seek out its proprietary twin.

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