Migrating from Microsoft Word to StarOffice: Look before you leap

StarOffice's word processing module, StarWriter, is rich in features and reasonably easy to use. But it's not 100 percent compatible with Microsoft Word. Is making the switch worth it?

You're running hard. There's a big, angry mob chasing you. They're yelling, too. They're describing in hideous detail just what they're going to do when they catch you. It isn't fair! So what if you came in on the weekend, erased everyone's copy of Microsoft Word, and installed StarOffice instead? You left a neat one-page tip sheet to help them get started, didn't you?

Waking up, you realize that it's just a bad dream. And of course, you know better than to pull off a stunt like that. (Believe it or not, somebody actually did migrate to StarOffice this way—and I am not making it up. You can read the sad story .) As an IT specialist, you've learned that you can migrate users to new applications successfully—if you're careful. You know the drill. Start small with a prototype system. Involve users at every step. And plan. Heck—plan for disaster.If you can predict all of the areas where something might blow up in your face, you have a fighting chance of success—and you might even survive the process.

Ready to play Worst Case Scenario? This Daily Drill Down takes a cold, unflinching look at the problems that you may encounter while moving from Word to StarWriter, ranging from mere annoyances to drop-dead showstoppers. As you'll see, there are certain authors—mainly in the highly skilled professional and technical areas—who aren't likely to be thrilled with StarWriter. And you'd better think through the implications of Sun Microsystems’ licensing; otherwise, you might be exposing your organization to risks that you don't fully understand. StarOffice is free—but you're not free from Sun.

Why StarOffice?
Let's face it. StarOffice isn't likely to win many awards for All Time Favorite Office Suite. Bucking the trend toward loosely-coupled, separate applications, StarOffice is a single, large, integrated program—“bloated," some say, although StarOffice's defenders point out that its 70 MBs occupy far less space than Microsoft Office.

And the interface! Aaargh! It's charitably described as quirky, but "maddening" might be a better word. Users spend inordinate amounts of time looking unsuccessfully for a way to do something ridiculously simple, like turning off automatic numbering in lists. But don't expect help. There's only one word for the online documentation: pathetic. Even worse, StarOffice isn't 100 percent compatible with Microsoft Office, despite Sun's dubious claim that it's the most compatible suite in existence.

If StarOffice isn't all that great, what's the appeal? Thanks to Sun, it's free. It runs on Linux—which also is free. And the lack of 100 percent compatibility with Microsoft Office isn't necessarily a bad thing. For example, StarOffice can't read Microsoft Word macros. Obviously, in a macro-intensive shop, that's inconvenient, but there's a payoff: StarOffice can't read Word macro viruses, either! And did I mention that it's free?

And frankly, StarOffice isn't that bad. Once you’re past the initially poor impression that StarOffice makes, you realize that it's a good, capable program, as long as you stick to the stronger modules (the database module is, by far, the weakest). The word processing module, StarWriter, is the best, while the spreadsheet, StarCalc, is a close second. The PowerPoint-compatible graphics presentation program, StarImpress, is also quite good. What's more, it's the only full-featured graphics presentation program that’s available for Linux users. Let's leave the rest of StarOffice aside and focus on StarWriter, the word processing module. I'll examine StarCalc (the spreadsheet module) and StarImpress (the graphics presentation module) in upcoming Daily Drill Downs.

Introducing StarWriter
In terms of its feature set, StarWriter looks great. It offers a feature set that comes close to some of the best word processing programs available—and I'm including Microsoft Word. StarWriter's features include styles, autoformatting, a multilingual spelling checker that can highlight errors as you type, frames, tables, sections, equation, revision marks for collaborative writing, templates, field codes, outlining, footnotes, and much more. You can push your document's appearance in the desktop publishing direction, thanks to StarWriter's support for frames, text flow, positionable objects, and graphics—or you can go the Web direction and transform your document into a Web page that uses HTML 4.0 and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

StarWriter isn't quite as feature-rich as Word, but the omissions aren't serious. StarWriter doesn't support Word macros, and that's a blessing in disguise. StarWriter's close integration with the StarOffice scripting language, called StarBasic, enables rapid emulation of those Word macros that your authors genuinely need. You can leave out the virus code. Another feature missing from StarWriter is grammar checking. Admittedly, some inexperienced writers may miss this feature. Still, I suspect that the writers who most need grammar checking are the least likely to use it. Besides, most writers find this feature so distracting that they soon disable it.

So, what's the verdict? Migrate? Not so fast. Don't forget that the vast majority of authors outside your organization are still using Microsoft Word.

Like it or not, you simply cannot afford to run word processing software that's incompatible with Microsoft Word. You'd be shutting your authors off from external contact, as well as from the pool of internal Word documents that constitutes your organization's knowledge base. Your authors need to be able to import Word documents, including very complex documents that were developed for specific—possibly mission-critical—applications. They also need to be able to save StarWriter documents in Word's document formats. The crucial migration issue, therefore, is StarWriter's compatibility with Microsoft Word.

Just how well does StarWriter handle Word documents? Sun makes much of StarOffice's compatibility with Microsoft Office documents, but it also acknowledges that the compatibility isn't 100 percent.

Does that make you pause? Good—it should. Some features of Word documents don't survive the import process, just as some features of StarWriter documents don't survive the export back to Word. Many StarWriter authors will be able to exchange documents with Word users, and the process will go quite smoothly. However, other authors will find that imported Word documents are all but scrambled on-screen.

Just where do the incompatibilities lie? Are some types of documents more amenable to frequent exchanges between StarWriter and Word users than others? Are there some types of documents that can't be exchanged easily (or at all)? Are there authors who aren't going to like StarWriter because of these compatibility problems? The answer, in short, is "yes"—and they'll be at the front of the mob that's chasing you.

Don't expect these authors to love StarWriter
I've analyzed and tested StarOffice's compatibility with a wide variety of Microsoft Word documents, and I've come up with a list of the types of authors who may find that the current version of StarWriter (StarOffice 5.1a) doesn't meet their needs.

As you'll see from the following list, StarWriter isn't likely to please writers who work primarily with technical or very detailed information:
  • Collaborative writers—Word's revision marks feature enables writers to collaborate by tracking editing changes and allowing authors to approve or reject them. Although StarWriter offers revision marks, this feature is not compatible with Word. StarWriter cannot import the revision marks in Word documents; it just drops them and, in so doing, scrambles the work that's been done. If all the writers on the team are using StarWriter, they can use StarWriter's revision marks, but they're not exportable to Word. So, what's the risk? If all of your authors and editors collaborate in-house, you're fine. But what happens if your business picks up and you need to work with freelance editing personnel? Apparently, there are no plans to alter StarWriter's revision marks and make them compatible with Word. This is a serious deficiency of StarWriter; the lack of a Word-compatible revision marks feature ensures that even pro-Linux writers will need to keep a Windows partition and a copy of Microsoft Word in order to collaborate with external authors and editors.
  • Engineers and statisticians—Word's built-in equation editor isn't compatible with the analogous feature in StarWriter. StarWriter's cross-referencing capabilities cannot create automated, in-text cross references to equations. If quantitatively oriented personnel are accustomed to creating equations with Word's equation editing commands, then they won't be happy with StarOffice 5.1. Support for these features is planned for future StarOffice versions, but the upgrade has not yet been scheduled. Note, too, that StarWriter cannot export superscripted or subscripted characters that writers use in StarWriter documents. A fix is planned, but the upgrade isn't scheduled yet. In the Linux environment, these writers should examine LyX , a WYSIWYG front end to the LaTeX scientific and technical typesetting system.
  • Attorneys and paralegal personnel—StarWriter does not support a variety of Word features that attorneys and paralegal personnel frequently use, including automatic generation of a table of authorities and legal style numbering for paragraphs. These features will be supported in future versions of StarOffice, but the upgrade is not yet scheduled. These writers generally prefer WordPerfect, which is still the market-dominating package in legal shops.
  • Authors who use word processing software for desktop publishing—Although StarWriter can import and export Word frames, the program does not recognize many of Word's frame formatting capabilities, including background textures, colors, and graphics. StarWriter cannot route overflow text from frame to frame, making the program unsuitable for complex newsletters. Much the same can be said about StarWriter's limitations in importing Word tables; the feature works, but you'll lose custom borders and backgrounds. In general, StarWriter isn't a good choice for authors who must create complex, professional documents with tables, borders, textures, and shading. You’ll often find such writers in marketing departments. They need to create presentable press releases and other documents designed for public consumption. StarWriter isn't likely to please them.

Before migrating users in these categories to StarOffice, you should explain StarWriter's shortcomings and find out if these authors can live with the program's deficiencies.

Will anyone like StarWriter?
Looking at the above list, you may be wondering if any of your organization's authors will be able to work happily with StarWriter. Actually, almost all authors should be quite content with StarWriter. With the exception of revision marks, few authors (apart from professional and technical specialists) use the advanced features that StarWriter has difficulty importing and exporting. You can prove this point to yourself by collecting a random sample of your organization's Word documents and importing them into StarWriter. Chances are that almost all of them will import flawlessly—or nearly so.

What about the license?
If you've read this far, then you're probably still considering a migration to StarOffice. Before deciding, you should take a look at the license.

Sun will distribute the StarOffice source code under the terms of the Sun Community Source License (SCSL). But the source code isn't available yet, and it's not likely to become available for several months. As of now, Sun is distributing the StarOffice binaries with a much more restrictive license, which poses a potential risk for organizational adopters. In brief, the license grants you the right to use StarOffice and to distribute copies internally, but you may not redistribute the software outside your organization. That's fair enough, but a subsequent clause should give you pause: Sun reserves the right to withdraw the license at any time. If it does that, then you're obliged to erase every copy of StarOffice that you've installed under the binary licensing terms.

How real is the risk? In the short run, it's insignificant. More than one million copies of StarOffice 5.1 have been distributed under Sun's binary license, and it's unlikely that the firm would risk the public relations donnybrook that would surely follow if it suddenly withdrew all those licenses. In the long run, there's more to worry about. What if Sun's management decides that the whole StarOffice gamble isn't paying off and sells the StarDivision unit? The new owners may decide to start charging for StarOffice licenses. And what happens if you've migrated your organization to StarOffice? Surely, they'd let you keep all those copies of 5.1, but you'd have to fork over some money for upgrades.

What protection does Sun's seemingly open source licensing provide? Unlike the binary license, the Community Source License does not contain clauses that would enable Sun (or any other future owner of the StarOffice code) to revoke your license unilaterally. However, it's important to understand that the SCSL isn't a true open source license like the GNU General Public License (GPL). The license is granted to a "community," which could (conceivably) contain just one individual. The more likely prospect is that the licenses will be granted to an organization, such as a company or a university. The community could also comprise a group of organizations that agree to cooperate with StarOffice development. Only within the licensed community do licensees enjoy GPL-like freedoms; nobody has the right to redistribute the original StarOffice code outside this community. Furthermore, licensees are under positive obligations to forward bug fixes to Sun and to ensure that the modified product remains compatible with StarOffice’s application programming interface (API). Should a licensee breach these terms, Sun can revoke the community's license. In such cases, Sun does not demand the destruction or return of derivative code, but this is hardly comforting; obviously, the derivative code isn't going to work if the surviving, original StarOffice code is ripped out of it.

How real is the risk here? Again, it's worth remembering that the StarOffice code hasn't been released yet. Sun's plans may change—and so might the licensing terms. Even if all goes as planned, it's difficult to say just how zealously Sun intends to enforce the SCSL's terms. You'd be wise to have your organization's attorneys study the SCSL very carefully.

Migrate or sit tight?
As you've learned, the migration from Word to StarWriter might seem like a no-brainer, but it can be a very involved process. Professional and technical authors could find themselves cut off from external, Word-using collaborators. There's risk, too, in Sun's licensing terms—although it's too early to tell if the risk is worth worrying about. Suffice it to say that the SCLS isn't GPL, and that means that adopting StarOffice exposes your organization to liabilities that don't exist with true open source software. Whether you like it or not, you'll have a relationship with Sun—one that involves positive obligations and responsibilities on your organization's part but also the threat of sanctions (should you unwittingly breach the license's terms). You might want to sit tight and see what develops between Sun and its licensed communities. In the meantime, it's possible that a credible, open source alternative, such as AbiWord , may emerge.

If you decide to make the move to StarOffice, here's a tip. Get every user a copy of Que's Using StarOffice, Special Edition, which was written by Michael Koch, Sarah E. Murphy, and Werner Roth. Developed in close connection with StarDivision (the originators of StarOffice), this book is one of the best computer books ever written on any application, let alone an application that’s as confusing as StarOffice. Your users will have plenty of questions, and this book has the answers.

Bryan Pfaffenberger, a UNIX user since 1985, is a University of Virginia professor, an author, and a passionate advocate of Linux and open source software. A Linux Journal columnist, his recent Linux-related books include Linux Clearly Explained (Morgan-Kaufmann) and Mastering Gnome (Sybex; in press). His hobbies include messing around with his home LAN and sailing the southern Chesapeake Bay. He lives in Charlottesville, VA. If you’d like to contact Bryan, send him an e-mail .

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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