Sun Microsystems is to release a new version of StarOffice that includes features to address the software's compatibility with Microsoft Office, one of the chief areas of complaint among users of Sun's office productivity suite.

Version 8 was expected to be released some months ago, but has been delayed owing to the delay in the development of Open Office, the software on which StarOffice is based. "There was an extensive beta period [in which] we received lots of comments and suggestions," said Herb Hinstorff, director of marketing for Sun's Client Systems Group. "We didn't rush something out; we wanted it to be right. We believe now it is ready and of high quality."

StarOffice 8 includes a macro converter that automatically converts Microsoft Office macros to work in StarOffice, said Iyer Venkatesan, a product line manager at Sun Microsystems. The product also enables easier conversion from Microsoft Office of features such as tables and password-protected files, he said.

Additionally, Sun improved the look and feel of the product to be more familiar to Microsoft Office users, Venkatesan said.

Other new features in StarOffice 8 are "context-sensitive toolbars" for specific tasks that automatically pop up when a user begins one of those tasks in an application, he said. For example, if a user begins building a table in StarOffice's word-processing application, a toolbar for building tables will open, he said.

The toolbars can be placed anywhere on the screen depending on a user's choice, Venkatesan added. In previous versions of the suite, toolbars were stationary.

StarOffice 8 also is the first office productivity suite to support Open Document Format for Office Applications, or OpenDocument, as the standard for office documents. Developed within the standards body OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), OpenDocument is an XML (Extensible Markup Language)-based file format that covers the features required by text, spreadsheets, charts and graphical documents.

OpenDocument gained attention recently when the state of Massachusetts chose to support the formatfor all office documents. Sun believes there is a growth opportunity for StarOffice because it is the first commercial office suite to support OpenDocument, Venkatesan said .

The product will be available from retail outlets as well as being available for download for $69.95 from Sun's website Tuesday, Hinstorff said.