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ISSUE 526: The high-tech office- Nov 23 1999


Sun Microsystems offers StarOffice suite free as a way to stick it to competitor Microsoft

Last week, we took a look at Lotus's new entrant to the Office suite sweepstakes, Smartsuite. In the past months, we've looked at similar products from Microsoft and Corel. All of these are marketed the same way -- put your money down and buy a box with a CD and some manuals. Or buy a piece of paper, licensing you to use the suite on a fixed number of stations.

Sun Microsystems thinks there's a better way. The company, best known for its server and workstation hardware, recently bought the German-based StarDivision, makers of an office suite, StarOffice. While not well known in North America, StarOffice commands 30 per cent of the market for office suite software in Germany.

StarOffice suite is available in versions for Windows 95/98/NT, Linux, Sun Solaris and IBM OS/2 operating systems. And while it has been free for personal use and included with many versions of Linux in the past, users needed to register with Star to access the software. And, of course, it wasn't free for business users.

Sun has changed all that. Since the takeover, StarOffice is available from its Web site (
) as a free download. It's a 65-meg download, but free to all comers. If the download seems daunting, you can order it on CD for about $15 (plus shipping) and you can legally install from that single copy or download onto an unlimited number of computers.

I'm using it to type this article right now and it certainly seems like a competent product with all the standard features. You do need to manually set it for real-time spell checking and it has a disconcerting habit of trying to auto-complete words as I type. There's a spreadsheet, presentation program, database, scheduler and vector drawing program. The programs open and save files in the standard Microsoft Office file types, with a huge range of additional word processor file types available.

It includes a Web brows-
er, along with e-mail and Internet news options, and offers to make itself the default for these functions.

You may wonder what Sun stands to gain giving StarOffice away free.

Sun suggests that this is only the first step of its strategy. Soon, they plan to rewrite the product, integrating it into StarPortal, as an application that doesn't need to be loaded onto individual machines, but can be run across a network or across the Internet. This would turn word processing and the like into just another Internet service, like e-mail is today.

Sun would benefit from this in a number of ways. It sells many of the servers that would provide these free services. As well, it is trying to create a market for network stations or minimalist computers that don't store applications locally, getting what they need from the servers. Sun would also sell both the servers and the network stations.

Finally, Sun CEO Scott McNeally has been looking for ways to stick it to Microsoft. None of his public speeches are complete without taking a poke at the software giant and its products. Microsoft currently gets about 40 per cent of its revenue from sales of its office suite. If Sun can cut Microsoft off from that revenue stream, it may consider it worthwhile, even if Sun doesn't actually turn a profit from its efforts.

A few years ago, Microsoft successfully cut into Netscape's then-commanding lead in its Web browser marketshare by giving its Internet Explorer browser away for free. Sun appears to be trying out a similar strategy. When I downloaded my copy of StarOffice, early in November, Sun claimed about 900,000 downloads, a tiny fraction of Microsoft's customer base. But since a single copy of StarOffice can be legally installed on a large number of computers, that figure isn't an accurate indication of the number of users. And it's only been available to download for a few months. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan