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StarOffice goes to school

The program offers Microsoft-free file compatibility

Universities around the world are using the newly open sourced StarOffice as an alternative to Microsoft-based file compatibility. Paired with Linux, universities can also use StarOffice to resurrect old systems that lack the power to handle other uses. This article explores the facets of open software in educational settings, and asks what Sun hopes to gain by targeting universities for StarOffice distribution. (1,600 words)
By Steven Gould and Shari Jones

Sun's decision in October to open StarOffice 6.0's source code represents one of the most significant recent announcements in the open source arena. The impact of opening a major office suite's source code remains to be seen as individuals, companies, and educational institutions explore ways to enhance and customize the software.

Sun targeted the higher education market with the move, which is proving to be mutually beneficial to Sun and its StarOffice end users as the worldwide academic community embraces the software.

Sun's liberal source licensing in numerous ways opens the doors of opportunity for universities and their students, says Phil Parkman, Sun's director of operations for Webtop and applications software, including StarOffice.

This article explores the benefits open source software brings to students, in particular future computer scientists and engineers. It also describes how StarOffice, running on Linux and Sun Solaris, is being used in educational settings.

Schools and students reap the benefits
While their daily tasks require a Unix-based system, engineers in computer science, management information systems (MIS), engineering, and other technical departments still must communicate with others in universities, which often use Microsoft Office products. Technical students often use different Unix flavors and need a compatible office suite to work on class projects. As a result, engineers, faculty, and students require an office suite that allows them to access documents from any platform. That traditionally required a separate PC taking up space on a desk alongside a Unix workstation. According to Sonja Thieme, who is part of Sun's sales development education team, engineering and MIS departments now can "get rid of their PCs" and use their Unix workstations running StarOffice to communicate with Microsoft-based users.

StarOffice use is not isolated to universities -- through the America's Promise Program, some school districts are implementing the software running on Linux. The national program is chaired by retired General Colin Powell and supported by Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison, who also heads his company's program. The Promise programs dovetail and focus on providing computers for schools in low-income neighborhoods. The program presented 1,100 new Linux-based Internet computers to the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) this May (see Resources for a link to a article on that topic). In the first pilot program, 50 computers were installed at DISD's Booker T. Washington High School, a magnet school for the visual and performing arts, and the remaining computers were distributed across DISD. Although the school district uses Microsoft-based PCs in its current environment, the new Oracle computers run Linux and StarOffice, to which the district is considering a migration.

What's in it for Sun?
The concept of open source licensing for universities is nothing new to Sun, according to Parkman, who says Sun promoted the idea "long before open source was a buzzword."

Parkman said that Sun intends its liberal source licensing for universities to further the education process. Accepting enhancements from open source developers at universities could improve the quality and stability of the software. That benefits Sun by making its software stronger and "adding to what's available to [Sun]." Students can now view the source code, Parkaman says, and "brilliant minds all over the world" can build upon and enhance it.

Case in point, San Jose State University
At univeristy engineering and MIS departments, engineers typically run some flavor of Unix. And the Unix of choice is now often Linux, not just because it is free but because some engineers are sold on its quality as well as on its open nature.

At San Jose State University, price (or lack thereof) was key to choosing Linux, says Kindness Israel, director of engineering computing systems. His department is responsible for developing applications used internally by students and faculty, such as timesheet and course verification programs. As in many universities, his development environment is Unix-based, and he develops Web-based Oracle database applications on Linux. StarOffice's primary role is to enable engineers to communicate with other university departments that use Microsoft products.

Israel fully supports and encourages open source and considers Sun's decision to open StarOffice's source code an "important step." He also fully supports the use of Linux in a development environment and says the faculty at San Jose State University is slowly adopting Linux as an open tool.

In addition to implementing StarOffice in the engineering department, Israel is also in charge of setting up open teaching labs in which computers and word processing packages are used to teach communications skills to engineering students. Students are required to take those writing lab classes. Any word processing package would suffice in the writing lab, and Israel said in the next year he would like to see an open teaching lab running StarOffice on Linux. Why? The university has numerous older-model, low-end Sun and HP computers that can easily run Linux and StarOffice. They can easily handle compatible word processing software such as StarOffice but, due to their limited resources, the machines would be useless for development or if Microsoft Office were the only option.

Michigan Technological University
For Michigan Technological University students, StarOffice is now an integral part of the university's academic program. Michigan Technological University this fall has implemented new standards requiring its freshmen engineering students to take common courses using StarOffice (running on Sun Solaris). The software is available on campus and available to students off campus via remote access.

By standardizing with StarOffice, students and teachers in any department can access any document, says Chris Williams, manager and senior systems administrator for Michigan Tech's department of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics, biomedical engineering. Students may be assigned projects that span multiple disciplines and will need to use a compatible office suite. For example, students in computer science and electrical engineering may work on a joint project and need to share specific project information such as design documents or project specifications. A standard office suite that allows the import and export of multiple software packages eliminates compatibility issues.

In the upper-level classes, students traditionally encountered compatibility issues, since a standard office suite was not required prior to the fall semester. They have used multiple office suites and, while they are not required to convert to StarOffice, requiring current and future freshmen to use StarOffice as a standard eliminates future incompatibility issues.

Open StarOffice source code means Michigan Tech can now customize menus for each department that uses the software, Williams said. It also allows her department to adjust the look and feel of the desktop for each department and individual users.

In the future, Williams said she hopes StarOffice will become an "all encompassing tool," standardizing the university's Web browser, email system, spreadsheet package, and other desktop software.

Other Michigan Tech departments also use StarOffice as a standard, though on different operating systems, including Linux and Sun Solaris.

Getting it out there
Sun stresses that while StarOffice is a freely licensed product for personal use, it does not grant redistribution rights. Sun has created the StarOffice NOW program (see Resources for a link) in which organizations such as universities sign up as redistributors. The program allows such organizations to bundle software packages and distribute them internally. For example, a university can bundle StarOffice with Linux and Norton Antivirus, and make the package available via CD or download from an internal server.

Parkman says that the StarOffice NOW program allows Sun to compete aggressively in the personal productivity space. Currently, Sun has 111 fully licensed redistributors through the StarOffice NOW program. In a recent Sun press release, Mike Jones, IT director at Moreland School District in San Jose, Calif., said, "The StarOffice NOW program offers our students and faculty the opportunity to use the robust StarOffice productivity suite. Our district is comprised of K-8 public schools in which students working on different platforms need to have a productivity suite that runs on almost all of them."

What's next?
Universities around the world currently use StarOffice. The next goal, Parkman says, is to make StarOffice available in double-byte Asian languages. It currently is available in 11 Western languages, including Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.

The academic community is attracted to the freely available StarOffice source code because members can customize it to better meet the needs of faculty, staff, and students. Sun's distribution plan for bundling StarOffice with other software, Parkman says, was designed to make it as easy as possible for universities to widely distribute and implement the software. As such, it serves as a learning tool for students who use StarOffice in required projects and enhances communications between departments that previously were hampered by incompatible systems. StarOffice, along with Linux and Solaris, also provides a way for universities to use out-of-date equipment that otherwise would remain useless.

About the author
Steven Gould works as a senior consultant for CGI, a large international consulting company. Based in Dallas, he develops primarily in C++ and Java under Slackware Linux (and KDE), various other Unix platforms, and Windows NT/2000. He is a Sun-certified Java developer and a Microsoft-certified professional.

Shari Jones is a freelance journalist and a technical writer for epicRealm, a Dallas-based startup company. A former consultant, she has more than 10 years of experience writing technical articles and documentation covering all areas of the high-tech industry.


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