SAN MATEO (07/31/2000) - By now you surely have heard that Sun Microsystems Inc. is going to release Star Office 6.0 as open source this fall under the GNU GPL (General Public License). By coincidence, I had already turned to Star Office 5.2 as my primary productivity suite after flirting with alternatives such as Applix's Applixware and Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000.
There are a number of details beyond the switch to GPL that make this announcement interesting. The most intriguing is the fact that Sun is going to split the office suite into individual application components.
There are several reasons why Sun needs to do this. On the surface, it will make Star Office easier to use. Star Office is currently a monolithic suite that takes longer to launch than it takes Microsoft to release a security patch.
I personally use only two pieces of the suite most of the time: the word processor and the PIM (personal information manager). I occasionally use the spreadsheet. It would be a great relief for me to be able to launch only the applications I use, especially if that translates into faster launch times and less memory consumption.
Sun also wants to give the components a Bonobo compatibility layer. (Bonobo is the CORBA-compliant object model used by the GNU Object Modeling Environment [GNOME] desktop.)I was a bit ambivalent about this decision at first. On the one hand, I have somewhat soured on GNOME of late and would have preferred to see Star Office get tighter integration with KDE (K desktop environment). But as much as I prefer KDE to GNOME, I have to admit that the KDE team could turn out to be shortsighted with respect to its component strategy.
On the downside, CORBA is sluggish and complex, and is largely responsible for the lack of responsiveness of some of the GNOME tools. But I still believe the GNOME developers got it right in choosing CORBA as the way to go, at least in the long run.
Computers will continue to get faster, which will eventually make the speed problem a nonissue. And developers will continue to create better tools for creating and integrating CORBA components, making these components easier to use and manage.
It probably doesn't matter, anyway. Greater interoperability between KDE and GNOME components is supposedly already in the works. Sun's choice of Bonobo will simply increase the pressure on KDE to make its component architecture work seamlessly with Bonobo.
More important to Sun is the fact that splitting up Star Office into components makes the suite more likely to become ubiquitous. The idea is to encourage developers to drop the Star Office word processor component into their applications instead of writing a word processor or editor module.
There's no guarantee the open-source community or commercial developers will buy in to this, but I'm betting they will. The Bonobo layer should make the components relatively easy to reuse. There are no licensing fees or restrictions (other than the GPL requirement to release your modifications) to discourage developers from using the Star Office components. Sun is establishing a foundation of XML-based open file formats for its documents, so developers and users don't need to be afraid they'll be locked in to a proprietary data format when they adopt Star Office or applications that use Star Office components.
And Sun doesn't seem to be asserting exclusive control over any standards, rights, or specifications that would give it implicit control over developers who adopt Star Office components.
Put simply, Sun is offering the convenience Windows developers already enjoy when they reuse Word or Internet Explorer as part of their applications. But there are two dangers inherent in reusing Microsoft components.
First, Microsoft routinely breaks applications that depend on its components with each new service pack.
Second, as we all know by now, there is the well-known danger of developing anything for a Microsoft operating system, whether you use Microsoft components or not. If Microsoft decides any given application constitutes competition, that developer might as well file for bankruptcy.
The key here will be momentum. If Sun can convince enough people to use Star Office components in the first year or two after this version is released, it will behoove most developers to jump on the bandwagon just to ensure compatibility between their applications and what has become the mainstream.
Indeed, if enough developers jump on this bandwagon, Sun could succeed in cutting off Microsoft's air supply (to coin a phrase). It all comes down to money. Why pay to get handcuffed onto a Microsoft upgrade treadmill when you have the GPL guarantee that Star Office and its offspring will always be open, free to use, and free to customize?
I think Sun has it in the bag. What do you think?
Nicholas Petreley is the founding editor of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com).
Send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.