Today, I had the opportunity to speak with Iyer Venkatesan, Product line manager for StarOffice at Sun Microsystems. He spoke to me at length about StarOffice 8, which will be released tomorrow. Read on for a summary of the interview, and be sure to check out the review at Newsforge as well.
Note: Due to technology complications, I was unable to record this conversation for verbatim transcription. As such, all answers are paraphrased and should not be quoted in external sources.
Iyer was very eager to share the news about tomorrow’s release of StarOffice 8. Based on the OpenOffice.org 2.0 codebase, StarOffice provides 5 major points of note.
Firstly, StarOffice 8 is a signficant upgrade, especially with MS Office compatibility and usability side. StarOffice can now read write Office formats much more readbily than in previous versions. Usability-wise, there is a greater familiarity for users migrating from Microsoft Office. There is a low cost of “retraining” and and a higher “ease of learning” due to a dramatically changed interface. Unlike OpenOffice.org, StarOffice can now convert most Office macros, tables, headers, and footers. Macro conversion, it appears, was one of the most requested features by current StarOffice users. The majority of macros can now be converted and are supported. In addition, StarOffice can now open Microsoft Office 2003 password protected files, which until now, has only been supported in Office itself.
Iyer pointed out that research showed that the import filter in StarOffice seemed to be good enough, but that when a document was opened, edited, and then returned, what the Sun team refers to as a “roundtrip,” more compatbility issues came to the surface. Extra detail was paid to this process this time around.
Secondly, The user interface has been majorly revamped. Users of the beta versions of OpenOffice.org will now be very familiar with the new interface, however, since the previous version of StarOffice was built on OpenOffice.org 1.x, the UI presentation is very different and allows users to be much productive. Impress, for example, is now very similar to Powerpoint in it’s pane-like view. Menus are context sensitive, and the floating toolbars geared at providing task-specific help appear to assist in document creation.
The third major bullet point we highlighted was StarOffice 8 beung the 1st commercial to be compliant with the new OASIS standard. OpenOffice.org and KOffice are two other suites that do already, or will soon, ship with OpenDocument XML as the default file format. With the OpenDocument standard, users can now store content that can “outlast” any program. Because it is a standard, it’s guaranteed to be manipulable without restriction or impeding license at any point in the future.
Fourth, we focused on differences from OpenOffice.org 2.0. Of course, macro migration is an important commercial features. There is a configuration manager which assists administrators in managing users and setups. As in previous versions, there is a spell check library, additional clipart, additional fonts, and more. StarOffice also comes with 60 days support.
Another interesting point is Sun’s new distribution model for StarOffice. New distribution methods will push boxed StarOffice into retail stores and a greater number of online channels. All of this suggests that the push for StarOffice 8 is much larger than previous ventures, as the product has now matured into a much more robust suite.
After the initial discussion, I had an oppotunity to ask a few questions. Please remember that the answers are all paraphrased.
OSNews: What are the OEM opportunties associated with StarOffice? Are you targetting the Dells and HPs of the industry?
Certainly, we are aiming for OEMs as well as existing commercial settings. So far, we’ve had much greater success in Europe, Japan, and other areas of Asia than in the USA. We are currently looking into the so-called “whitebox” space.
OSNews: What about OpenDocument is more compelling than StarOffice 6 and 7’s SXW formats which were also XML based?
The main plus is compliance. As seen in Massachusettes, across Europe, and in many other areas, standards are becoming more important. Previously, the StarOffice file format was authored and controlled by Sun. With OpenDocument, there is no one vendor that controls its destiny.
OSNews: Can OpenDocument do anything than StarOffice files can’t, or vice versa?
No. Certainly, the formats are virtually interchangeable. StarOffice 8 can read and write StarOffice 7 files, and a plugin that is either forthcoming or already released will allow StarOffice 7 to write OpenDocument files. The conversion from one to the other is largely trivial, but goes a long way to satisfying the goal of application independence.
OSNews: Does Sun see the popularity of OpenOffice.org as a threat to its own StarOffice business?
No, OpenOffice.org is not a threat, but rather a nice complement. Some want OpenOffice.org, some prefer pure open source software, some want a productivity suite and simply don’t want to pay for it. Others want support, additional features, and the conversion compatibility improvements that StarOffice offers. We recognize that there is a market for both. We also believe that OpenOffice.org users are likely to prefer StarOffice at work.
OSNews: Many free software supports are upset that parts of OO.o depend on Java, which is not currently considered “free software” by the current definition. Has Sun spent anytime addressing this, or is extracting Java dependence – a Sun technology, I’d note – not considered a priority?
Certainly, today, StarOffice requires a JRE to function properly. I know Sun has taken steps to make Java more open source friendly. But somebody on the OpenOffice.org team with specific knowledge about Java plans would have to address that more specifically.
OSNews: One of the largest complaints about StarOffice/OO.o is the load time. Recent articles have suggested that without kernel level access, there is only “so much” that can be done to improve load time? Is this true? If not, what is StarOffice doing to improve load time, and is it any different that what we currently see with OpenOffice.org?
StarOffice load time should not be much different than what you currently see with OpenOffice.org 2. Load time will continue to improve, however, and has with each successive version of StarOffice. There will likely be 3-4 or more updates to StarOffice 8 over the course of its lifetime, and during that span, we expect to see load time continue to improve.
OSNews: Why is OpenOffice.org not able to ship alongside StarOffice 8? Will it contain features, bug fixes, or stability enhancements not found in StarOffice?
The OpenOffice.org 2 release is based on a schedule set forth by the OpenOffice.org community. The Sun release process is different, but you will see no major differences from one product to another in those regards. The OpenOffice.org OOCon conference is this week. I would expect to see some announcement there about a release date for OpenOffice.org 2.
OSNews: Do you believe that the OASIS format will eventually be adopted by Microsoft, if only in the form of a custom filter? And if not, will StarOffice be able to eventually support Microsoft’s “Office 12” XML, whose XSDs were recently published?
Of course, I can only speculate on this point, but I would suspect that Microsoft will eventually have to support OASIS, if only in an import/export fashion. The world market has already dictated that there will be a migration towards standards.
StarOffice will eventually read/write Office 12. It’s way too early to really discuss this in detail, to be fair. We know that new products take about 2 years to really permeate the landscape, and “Office 12” is still well over a year away. When the formats are finalized, StarOffice will support them – the first specs are out and we’ve already seen them. However, right now, we’re most concerned with best supporting existing documents through Microsoft Office 2003.
OSNews: Thanks for your time!