As you probably know by now, Sun Microsystems Inc. has bought Star Division and is not only giving away StarOffice 5.1, but also is planning to open up the source code for the product. StarOffice 5.1 is an integrated office suite that includes software for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, Web publishing and browsing, e-mail, newsgroups, databases, image editing, line drawing, and probably half a dozen other things I haven't noticed yet.
Sun is obviously attempting to poison Microsoft Corp.'s cash cow, Microsoft Office, by giving away a competitive product for free. StarOffice 5.1 imports most Microsoft Office files reasonably well, and it looks and works enough like Microsoft Office to make the transition easy for an end-user. But even Sun must realize that it will be difficult for companies in which Microsoft Office is entrenched to switch to StarOffice, even if those companies can save money by doing so.
That's why the more important development resulting from the Star Division acquisition is Sun's plans to release StarPortal, a Web-based version of the StarOffice suite. This is the product that could do the most damage, primarily because an application service provider (ASP) can make a lot more money by offering StarPortal than it can by supporting Microsoft Office. Why promote a nonfree Microsoft Office when StarPortal is free and offers everything a customer needs?
Sun's product also has a scalability edge. I saw an early version of StarPortal almost two years ago after Star Division made a deal with Network Computer Inc. (NCI) to integrate the mostly Java-based front end to the office suite with the NCI network computer desktop operating system. It was quite impressive, considering the underpowered NC and server they used for the demo.
On the other hand, a server-based Microsoft Office promises customers a thinner client than does StarPortal, but that means more stress on the server. Because Microsoft's solution will probably use Windows NT's Terminal Server Edition, I would expect it to scale about as well as Citrix WinFrame. A typical WinFrame installation will max out at about 50 clients per server. As a result, an ASP that intends to serve Microsoft Office to a lot of customers will need to invest in some serious real estate for its server farm. Kansas might be a good start.
As hard as I have been on Microsoft, you might expect me to be rooting for Sun. But I am actually quite ambivalent about the possibility that Sun could cause irreparable damage to Microsoft Office as a product. I happen to prefer StarOffice 5.1 to Microsoft Office 2000, but I don't want to see innovation in the office-suite market grind to a halt the way it did in the browser market.
Notice how Netscape's browser has stagnated ever since it stopped making the company any real money. Microsoft hasn't done much with IE, either, at least not since it came close to feature parity with Netscape Communicator.
Not only has innovation virtually halted at both ends, but Microsoft's browser continues to suffer from the security hole of the week. And the ever-present bugs in Netscape Communicator make it difficult to keep the browser running at all. So much for the benefits of a free browser.
Fortunately, the parallel between the browser wars and what may occur in the office-suite wars is not perfect by any means. Microsoft had at least two distinct advantages when it began its mission to crush Netscape. For one thing, it could bundle its browser with every copy of Windows. For another, hardware vendors were more inclined to bundle Internet Explorer than they were to bundle Netscape. After all, Microsoft could threaten to raise the price on Windows or cancel a vendor's pre-load contract altogether if it didn't promote IE instead of Netscape. Sun has no equivalent leverage.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the browser wars and the office-suite wars is that Sun is planning to release the source code for StarOffice. That opens up opportunities for innovation that don't exist for Internet Explorer. So it is entirely possible that Sun may simply inject some competition back into the market, which will be good news for fans of both Microsoft Office and StarOffice.
Would you consider hosting or renting StarOffice? Do you think the cost savings is worth making the switch from Microsoft Office? I'd like to know your take on this.
(Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld (http://www.linuxworld.com). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit his forum at www.infoworld.com.)