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Sun shows new version of StarOffice

The company is showing Linux fans the next version of StarOffice, the most viable competition to Microsoft's Office package, and will release the beta version in October.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems is showing Linux fans the next version of StarOffice, the most viable competition to Microsoft's Office package, and will release the beta version in October.

Sun acquired StarOffice from Hamburg, Germany-based Star Division in 1999, and has made it available as a free download in an effort to undermine popular programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint that help to keep the Windows operating system dominant. The company also released the source code for the software under the General Public License (GPL), the same license that allows anyone to see, modify and distribute Linux software.

But the current version, 5.2, has been roundly criticized as a large and sluggish product. By default, the program tries to take over many desktop functions, coming with its own "Start" button and file browser, and all its programs load at once.

Version 6.0 will break these programs into individual applications that can run independently, said software demonstrators at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo where the software has been demonstrated this week.

Among those anticipating the new version is Matthew Szulik, chief executive of top Linux seller Red Hat, who stands to gain if Linux becomes more useful on ordinary computers. "I believe StarOffice 6.0 will be a compelling release," improving performance and manageability, Szulik said in an interview.

The desktop feature, as well as an e-mail checking program, both will be removed from version 6.0.

StarOffice 6.0, as with the current version, will run on Linux, Sun Solaris and Microsoft Windows machines.

Sun had been working on a Mac OS X version but canceled the plan. In April, Sun announced it was turning over the project to open-source programmers at the OpenOffice development site. "Sun firmly believes that there is enough support within the Mac OS X community to continue development on the port, and we invite Mac developers throughout the world to contribute their efforts to finishing the work that must be done to make this port a strong rival to other office software suites," Sun said at the time.

A beta version of the software is scheduled to arrive in October, said Herb Hinsdorf, manager of Sun's Linux Program Office.

The new version will also begin a switch to new, nonproprietary XML-based file formats that anyone can emulate. Because the inner workings of Microsoft file formats aren't published, it's difficult for companies to create "filters" that can read and write Microsoft files. Because of Microsoft's dominance in the office software market, file compatibility is key for any competitor.

Though files can be read and written, the "macros"--small programs used to automate tasks in Microsoft Office--won't necessarily run in StarOffice, Sun said.

By using a new compression scheme, StarOffice files will be about half the size as in version 5.2.