By making its StarOffice 5.1 software suite available for free on the Internet, Sun Microsystems Inc. has fired a shot across the bow of Microsoft Corp., challenging the dominance of Microsoft Office software, and Microsoft's control of the computer desktop.

Based on a test of Sun's product, Microsoft might have something to worry about.

StarOffice is not just an office suite, it's virtually an alternative operating system, one with its own browser, its own file explorer and a taskbar that mimics the standard Windows form.

Eventually, users of StarOffice won't need to keep it on their computers. They'll be able to connect to their company's server, or commercial sites on the Web, and use it there. For now, though, you have to have it installed on your PC.

I tested StarOffice running under Microsoft Windows 98, one of its numerous platforms. At first I was a bit confused when my desktop PC reconfigured itself, arranging all icons horizontally across the screen instead of in Win98's vertical layout. But within the new window, I could pretty much use the computer as expected.

StarOffice's biggest plus is multiplatform compatibility. The suite, originally written for Linux, also runs under Windows, SunSoft Solaris and IBM OS/2. It opens up the possibility that a mixed-hardware office could have a standardized desktop environment, making upgrades and technical support vastly easier. Now if only StarOffice ran under Mac OS.

I tested the main components you would expect to find in an office suite: word processor, spreadsheet and presentation graphics.

The word processor is good enough to go head-to-head against the market leaders. It's pretty easy to use, although you have to get used to seeing your writing area at the left side of the screen and formatting options on the right.

Compatibility between StarOffice and the other suites seems nearly flawless. When you click on a file created in Corel WordPerfect or Microsoft Word, it opens just fine in the StarOffice word processor. When you try to save, however, the default is a StarOffice ".sdw" extension. You can also save the document as a Word ".doc" file or as text. I found most files retained their original formatting, though I did run into a few minor problems with indents and the like.

The spreadsheet component of StarOffice is a bit weak. The default setup is not too functional because text always flows beyond the targeted cell, for some reason. It can be reconfigured, but a user expects such options to be set up correctly.

The spreadsheet program does have some nice features. You can drag and drop, which is great if the boss suddenly wants line item 229 turned into line item 106. Simply drag the mouse over the text to highlight it, then click in the new location. The program automatically inserts the old text in the new location, moving other cells to make room. For people who are constantly changing things around in spreadsheets, this is a real plus.

The presentation-graphics component shines. Many users are forced to consult those books for dummies to work in Microsoft PowerPoint, but I doubt anyone would need help for StarOffice's graphics program--it's that easy.

I didn't even read the instructions to create a 10-slide program with images and generic wiping effects. It was a bit harder to use the higher-end features, but for basic functionality I've not seen a better graphics program.

The file-management tools, which you can use as part of the desktop environment, are comparable to Win98's. You can drag and drop files anywhere within the desktop window.

The browser is a mixed bag. It resembles the Opera browser from Opera Software of Norway in loading Web pages super-fast. When I tested various browsers to open complex, graphics-intensive Web pages, the StarOffice browser was on average a second faster--and sometimes much faster--than Opera, Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 or Netscape Communicator.

I did run into a few problems viewing certain file types. Occasionally a graphics movie would not run, although other browsers could handle it. The reason might be that I had not installed all the needed plug-ins.

Downloading StarOffice from www.sun.com/staroffice takes a few hours over a 56K connection, and the site was hard to access soon after the free release was available. If you don't want to wait, order a CD-ROM for the price of the disk plus the shipping cost.

If you install the full suite, it takes up only 150MB on your hard drive, much less than I have come to expect from most office suites. I'm surprised that so much could be stuffed into such a small space.

So you don't have to spend a bundle on office suites: StarOffice is a valid choice, and it won't cost you a dime.

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StarOffice 5.1

Office suite

Sun Microsystems Inc.

Palo Alto, Calif.

Telephone: 1-800-555-9786

Web address: www.sun.com/staroffice

Price: Free on the Web. Or $9.95 plus shipping for CD-ROM.

Grade: A-

PROS:

+ Multiplatform

+ Full suite of office productivity programs

CON:

- Takes some getting used to

Real-life requirements: 32MB of RAM, 150MB of free storage