StarOffice glimmers on horizon

Sun Microsystems Inc. is preparing the release of the next version of its open-source office productivity suite, attempting to gather grass roots support to position the software as a viable competitor to Microsoft Corp.'s Office suite.

The Palo Alto-based hardware vendor said it will have a beta version of StarOffice 6.0, its suite of applications for word processing, e-mail management and spreadsheets, as early as October.

StarOffice is seen within the open-source software community as a key tool to take on Microsoft in the PC desktop market. It is packaged with a number of leading Linux operating systems. Sun also distributes StarOffice as a free download from its Web site, and makes the code to the software available so users can make changes to the functions and appearance of the software.

Roughly 20 million copies of StarOffice have been shipped worldwide since Sun first started offering it more than a year ago, Sun said. Five million shipments have been through downloads. Still analysts don't expect the product to gain marketshare on Microsoft too quickly.

"StarOffice is competition for Microsoft in about three places: China, Latin America, and (in) the U.S. in places where there are severe budget issues," said Chris Le Tocq, an analyst with Guernsey Research. It doesn't compete with Microsoft in companies with healthy budgets, he added.

Sun, whose primary market is the high-end server sector, has said it is playing in the office software market to directly take on Microsoft and its business model of generating revenue through software licenses and version upgrades. Sun doesn't depend on revenue from StarOffice, but rather hopes to gain new customer relationships and offer customers an alternative to Windows products, according to a Sun spokeswoman.

Sun purchased the technology for StarOffice last year from a company called Star Division Corp. based in Hamburg, Germany. In addition to the office suite, Sun also acquired a product called StarPortal, which the company has since rebranded as SunOne Webtop.

The portal hosts a number of services that StarOffice users can take advantage of such as online storage and remote access to documents from mobile devices, Sun said. StarPortal is similar to Microsoft's initiative to offer access to software and services across the Web, called .Net.

StarOffice runs on the Linux operating system as well as Windows and Sun's Solaris operating system. Files created in the StarOffice file format, now based on XML (Extensible Markup Language), can be opened in Microsoft Office. Similarly, the open source software can also read and write files created in Microsoft's Word, Excel and other Office applications.

But while StarOffice is compatible with the market leader, which analysts say is key to its success, the software has been criticized by some for being slow and bulky.

"StarOffice has pursued being a Microsoft Office alternative rather than creating something people want in a different way," Le Tocq. "Because it has pursued being an Office alternative, it's ended up rolling in features that don't always end up getting used."

Sun has broken the software into separate applications that can be launched independently of one another, which will help speed up the application, the company said. The previous 5.2 version, which Sun has called "monolithic," launched all the applications at once.

The software can be purchased through retail channels, such as Amazon.com Inc. for US$39.95. In comparison, Microsoft's Office XP Standard edition costs $479 at most retail locations, or $239 for an upgrade.

In addition to the stand-alone version of the software, StarOffice is distributed by a number of Linux vendors, including Red Hat Inc., Ximian Corp. and MandrakeSoft Inc.'s distribution of Linux. The newest version of StarOffice will include new support for Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages.

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