August 30, 1999 6:55 PM PDT

Sun to offer Microsoft Office competitor for free

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As part of Sun Microsystems' acquisition of software firm Star Division, the computing company will put more pressure on Microsoft by giving a Microsoft Office competitor, called Star Office, away for free to anyone, the company said.

As reported earlier by CNET News.com, the Star Division acquisition gives Sun the Star Office suite of office productivity software. Star Office is similar to Microsoft Office, but it runs on Linux, IBM's OS/2, and Sun's Solaris operating systems as well. Microsoft Office is by far the most popular office productivity software, containing programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

In the longer term, though, an upcoming version of the software suite called StarPortal is more significant, Marco Boerries, founder and former owner of Star Division, said in an interview with CNET News.com. With StarPortal, due by the end of the year, the heavy lifting is handled by a powerful central server and people access the software through gadgets including cell phones, TV set-top boxes, and laptops.

Tomorrow, when Sun officially announces the Star Division acquisition in New York, the company will demonstrate the use of StarPortal on a Java-enabled PalmPilot, which is connected to a server.

Both StarPortal and the conventional versions of the software will be given away for free to all comers, not just the educational and home users that used to be able to get Star Office without paying. That price tag stands in stark contrast to Microsoft Office, which costs about $400 for a basic version and much more for premium versions.

For its part, Microsoft says it's not troubled by the move. "We do not feel threatened," said Andrew Dixon, group product manager for Microsoft Office. "This move by Sun really has no bearing on our product development and marketing efforts."

Microsoft also has versions of its Office products that run on a central server, as well as stripped-down versions that run on Windows CE-based handheld devices, he added.

Microsoft continues to evaluate Linux, an inexpensive Unix clone which many say threatens Microsoft's operating system dominance, and to evaluate whether it makes sense to create a version of Office that runs on it, Dixon said. However, at present, "Desktop applications for end-users need a rich set of services provided by an operating system such as Windows," something Linux doesn't offer, Dixon said. "We don't have any plans to develop Office for Linux."

The Linux connection has boosted the stock prices of two other companies that offer Linux versions of office software, Applix and Corel.

In addition to giving the software away for free, Sun will make the original programming instructions, or "source code," available under the Sun Community Source License, said Brian Croll, a marketing director in Sun's platforms and software group.

Making money off free software
The free Star Office products make Sun money in two ways. First, like the "write once, run anywhere" Java technology, it's designed to support Sun's philosophy of relying on powerful central servers connected to a network. Not coincidentally, Sun does very well selling those servers.

Because of that philosophy, the acquisition dovetails neatly with Sun's coming September 8 announcement of its next-generation "thin client," a stripped-down computer code-named Corona.

Second, following the philosophy that prevails in the open-source community, Sun plans to make money selling services such as installation and technical support for the software, Croll said.

With the StarPortal software, an Internet portal such as Yahoo would be able to offer word processing and spreadsheet software alongside its current offerings of calendar and email software, Boerries said. Yahoo would be able to offer use of the software for free but would pay Sun for any technical support.

Technical support offerings will vary from lower-priority electronic chatting to more expensive, round-the-clock service with a two-hour response, Croll said. Sun itself will provide the technical support, but the product will be marketed by both Sun and the Sun-Netscape Alliance.

While Sun will allow anyone to redistribute the software, those who sell it will have to pay a fee back to Sun, Boerries said. That has ramifications to companies such as Red Hat which sells Linux bundled with accompanying software.

"If you're distributing free to the community, you don't have to pay. If you're charging, we get a distribution charge," Boerries said. "In my opinion, it's the fairest model in the world."

The 200 members of Star Division, many of whom work at the company's former headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, all have offers to transfer to Sun, Boerries said.

Work on all new versions of Star Office will continue, Boerries said, including the "classic" Linux and Windows versions and the newer server-centric StarPortal version. These "classic" versions, which require a relatively powerful computer to work, are needed to serve as a stepping stone for those making the change to a server-centric use, he said.

"To move people from one end of the paradigm to the new end, you have to move them over the bridge," Boerries said. The classic versions will automatically plug in with the server-centric version, synchronizing files stored on the local computer with those stored on the server, he said.

In line with the plan to become more open, Star Office file formats eventually will become XML, and the standard for interacting with it will become published openly and contributed to the ECMA standardization group, Boerries said.

Though Sun's Community Source License allows people to look at the source code of software such as Java and later Star Office, advocates have criticized it as not being open enough because Sun maintains ultimate control over the software and requires royalties for people who use it in commercial products.

The acquisition of Star Division was completed August 5, Boerries said, but he declined to disclose terms of the deal.

 

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