Will StarOffice on Linux kill Microsoft Office?

By now you surely have heard that Sun Microsystems plans to release StarOffice 6.0 in the coming months as open source under the GNU General Public License. By coincidence, I had already returned to StarOffice 5.2 as my primary productivity suite after flirting with alternatives such as Applixware and Microsoft's Office 2000.

As much as I like WordPerfect, WordPerfect 2000 for Linux is just too bloated, unstable, and unpredictable for me. I'm much happier with the stability and speed of Applixware. I would make it my default productivity suite but for a couple of factors, namely personal in-formation managers. The StarOffice PIM has a very nice interface, and it works great and synchronises beautifully with my PalmPilot. That and only that drove me back to using StarOffice.

StarOffice under the GPL

That brings me to a number of details beyond the switch to GPL that make Sun's announcement interesting. The most intriguing fact is that Sun plans to split the office suite into individual application components.

Most of the time I only use two pieces of the suite, the word processor and the personal information manager. It would be a great relief 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 StarOffice components a Bonobo compatibility layer (Bonobo is the CORBA-compliant object model used by the GNOME desktop). I was a bit ambivalent about that decision at first. On the one hand, I would have preferred to have seen StarOffice integrate more tightly with KDE. On the downside, CORBA is sluggish and complex. 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 StarOffice into components makes the suite more likely to become ubiquitous. Sun's idea is to encourage developers to drop the StarOffice 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 into that idea, 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 StarOffice 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 into a proprietary data format when they adopt StarOffice or applications that use StarOffice components.

Put simply, Sun offers 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, each new Microsoft service pack routinely replaces existing components with new versions that break the applications that depend on them. Second, 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, its developer might as well file for bankruptcy.

The key here will be momentum. If Sun can convince enough people to use StarOffice components in the first year or two after the new version is released, it will behove most developers to jump on the bandwagon just to ensure compatibility between their applications and what has become the mainstream.

Indeed, Sun could succeed in cutting off Microsoft's air supply (to coin a phrase). As friendly as Microsoft Office may be, why would anyone pay to use Microsoft Office given its many disadvantages? In the first place, Microsoft designs Office to keep you on a costly up-grade treadmill. StarOffice is free, as are any upgrades. Microsoft con-trols its own document formats and Office APIs. The StarOffice document formats and APIs will be completely open.

All in all, I think Sun has it in the bag. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a nearly universal conversion within five years to StarOffice components as the basis for the dominant productivity solutions.

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