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StarOffice rev may ease move from MS Office

Sun Microsystems hopes its forthcoming update, with new macro converters and better desktop management tools, will entice more Microsoft Office users to make the switch.

BOSTON--Sun Microsystems is planning new tools for its StarOffice desktop software package that could make it easier to attract Microsoft Office users.

The company plans to ship later this year an update to StarOffice that will include converters for moving macros created in Microsoft Office to StarOffice, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's top software executive, told a gathering of reporters here.

Sun will also introduce by summer new tools to remotely manage computers on corporate networks running StarOffice and other programs that are part of Sun's Java Desktop System, Schwartz said.

Both of the changes are geared toward removing any technological barriers standing in the way of Office users looking at StarOffice as a low-cost alternative, said Manish Punjabi, a group marketing manager at Sun.

The macro migration tool will convert macros written in Microsoft Excel so that they can be recognized and used in StarOffice Calc, the spreadsheet included in the StarOffice bundle, said Sun.

Macros are miniprograms typically used to automate repetitive or time-consuming tasks in spreadsheet and word processing software, such as calculating sales commissions and formatting documents, among other uses. Given the investment of time and skill needed to build those macros, many users are reluctant to move from one desktop package to another.

Currently, the only way to convert macros from Excel to StarOffice is to rewrite them or convert them by hand. That's "a big inhibitor to moving to StarOffice," said Punjabi.

With the new macro tool, Sun hopes to remove that barrier. "The migration question is a big one, a critical one. Certain users--in finance especially--tend to write macros, and they can get very complex," said Punjabi.

Likewise, a current lack of adequate administration tools is seen as a competitive weakness of StarOffice. The new remote management tools will be included with Java Desktop System release 2, slated for release by midyear, according to Sun. The tools are designed to let administrators:

• Centrally and remotely manage desktops and software system images to be copied to new systems.

• Define groups of users and policies, such as access rights.

•  "Lock down" features to disable certain programs, if needed.

StarOffice, which combines a word processor, spreadsheet application and other common office tools, primarily competes with Microsoft's dominant Office package, which controls more than 90 percent of the desktop software market.

Sun began giving away StarOffice in 1999 in hopes of eroding Microsoft's dominance. To date, the company has made little headway.

Schwartz acknowledged the difficulty of attempting to convert Office users--particularly the most advanced "knowledge workers" within big companies. "Those users are not the target audience (for StarOffice). They're immovable, in concrete," he said.

Instead, Sun is targeting people in government and academia, and in positions within businesses where the full-featured Office bundle isn't necessary.

Sun hopes to boost StarOffice, however, with a recently announced desktop computing strategy that uses the package as a key element in creating a low-cost alternative to Windows PCs.

The strategy centers on Sun's Java Desktop System which bundles StarOffice, GNOME desktop, Mozilla Web browser and other software. The company is offering the Java Desktop System at a price of $50 per computer or $25 per employee, until June 2. The regular price for the software is $100 per computer or $50 per employee.