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Software office gets a bit more crowded

SAN FRANCISCO — Sun Microsystems is hoping to steal market share from the Microsoft Corp. with the release on Tuesday of a new version of its business software collection, StarOffice, with improved compatibility with Microsoft Office.

StarOffice 8, which includes a spreadsheet, word processor, database and presentation software, allows users to import and export Microsoft Office files and to use Office macros, the tiny chunks of code that automate specific tasks.

Improving StarOffice's ability to work with Microsoft software is considered critical to expanding Sun's reach within companies that already use Microsoft products.

The release, which is the first upgrade to StarOffice in about two years, comes 18 months after the two companies announced a development partnership as well as an agreement not to sue each other over patent disputes. But Sun executives said most of the new compatibility features were in development at the request of some of Sun's largest customers even before Sun reached an accord with Microsoft.

The retail price of StarOffice 8 is $99.95, though the program can be downloaded for $69.95. For corporate customers, Sun offers a per-user price of $35. The company, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is also expanding StarOffice's sales through retailers.

StarOffice is the first commercial suite to support the OpenDocument format, an increasingly popular open-source approach to sharing files among computers, which is not supported by Microsoft. The format is being adopted by governments and other agencies attracted to the lower costs and independence of open-source programs.

Massachusetts, for example, announced last week that its state offices would use only those software programs that conform to OpenDocument, which was developed by the open-source standards body known as Oasis. That decision essentially locks out Microsoft, whose Office program stores files in so-called XML and other formats.

Massachusetts officials said the state government there would save millions of dollars by using only OpenDocument programs, in large part because those programs tend to cost less and are compatible with a variety of inexpensive open-source programs. Officials there also said they felt it was critical they remain "sovereign" rather than be locked into a specific company.

Several European governments are also considering mandating the use of programs based on OpenDocument.