updated 01:00 am EDT, Fri August 8, 2008
StarOffice 9 for the Mac
Practically every business uses Microsoft Office these days. Windows users have always had a much wider variety of Microsoft Office alternatives, but on the Mac, the only serious competitor to Microsoft Office has been Apple's iWork. However, Sun Microsystems has recently released a beta of its new StarOffice suite, which provides yet another office suite competitor in the Mac market.
The most immediate difference between the two office suites is that the Mac version of Microsoft Office only offers a word processor (Word), spreadsheet (Excel), presentation (PowerPoint), and e-mail client (Entourage) while StarOffice offers a word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation (Impress), drawing program (Draw), and database (Base).
Comparing the retail price of Microsoft Office ($399.95) and its Home and Student Edition ($149.95) with StarOffice ($69.95) clearly shows the price advantage of this rival office suite.
Of course, price isn't the only criteria for evaluating software. Since so many people rely on and share Microsoft Office files, file compatibility can be crucial. Fortunately, Sun's office suite shines in this area by supporting a variety of file formats ranging from ancient files such as WordPerfect and Quattro Pro files to the latest Microsoft Office 97/2000/XP/2007 file formats.
Since many government agencies are now specifying that all data must be stored in non-proprietary file formats, this office suite also supports the Open Document standard as well as allowing you to export files to PDF format. While there's always a chance that complex Microsoft Office files may not appear when opened by a non-Microsoft Office program, chances are good that this office suite can open, edit, and save your data to a file format that you need.
Perhaps the most unique advantage of this office suite is its limited support for the VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) programming language, which is used to create macros in Office files. While all Windows versions of Office support VBA, Microsoft Office 2008 for the Mac completely lacks support for VBA, which makes this rival office suite actually more compatible then Microsoft's own product in this specific case.
One area where Microsoft Office shines is its vast library of pre-designed templates. Just load and modify a template, and you can create a well-designed document in seconds. This competing office suite offers a far smaller selection of basic templates for creating documents. While this limited selection may be adequate, it can't compete against Microsoft's much larger template library.
Although the individual programs that make up Microsoft Office are designed to work together, you must load each program separately. This office suite more closely resembles an integrated program. Just load up StarOffice and from the File --> New command, you'll have the option of creating a word processor document, spreadsheet, database, presentation, or drawing.
If you're familiar with an older version of Microsoft Office for Windows, you might be comfortable with the multitude of toolbars displayed in each program. Microsoft Office 2008 for the Mac streamlines this interface by eliminating multiple toolbars. This gives the program a cleaner look, but at the sacrifice of forcing previous Office users to relearn a new user interface.
Sun's office suite more closely mimics the user interface of these older versions of Microsoft Office, which means it can be easier for many people (those familiar with Office XP or Office 2003 on Windows) to learn and use with minimal training.
For a limited time, Sun is giving away beta copies of StarOffice until August 17th, when the beta program will expire. Since the beta is free, you have nothing to lose by downloading the hefty 183Mb file and trying the program on your own Mac.
Given Sun's commitment to improving the program through their support of the open source version called OpenOffice, you can be sure that StarOffice for the Mac will likely remain a serious contender in the office suite market. If you need guaranteed file compatibility (except for VBA support), your only choice is Microsoft Office 2008. However, if you need near-perfect file compatibility along with VBA support and a user interface that more closely resembles previous Windows versions of Microsoft Office, StarOffice is an impressive and viable alternate office suite for the Mac.