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StarOffice 6.0 will be available worldwide on May 21 as a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s Office, Sun Microsystems Inc. announced Wednesday.

StarOffice 6.0 is a collection of office productivity applications, including word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation, and drawing software. The product, announced in March, runs on Sun's Solaris, various flavors of Linux, and Microsoft's Windows. Business customers will pay on a volume basis, with prices starting at US$50 per user for a 150-user license, and decreasing to $25 per user for 10,000 or more user licenses. StarOffice licenses allow each user to install the software on up to five machines or devices. Retail users will pay $75.95 for the product, while educational customers need only to pay for the CD-ROM and shipping of the software.

"(Microsoft's) Office is not a bad product. But we feel the market needs an alternative, and it (Office) is overpriced and inflexible in its licensing," said Mike Rogers, vice president and general manager for desktop and office productivity software at Sun in Palo Alto, California.

Sun designed the new version to use default XML (Extensible Markup Language) file formats, enabling users to share StarOffice files with other XML-based applications and download tools from the Internet to customize features, according to Sun.

Support for Microsoft's Office product, the dominant office productivity suite, was also increased. Files created in Word or Excel can be read, modified, and saved in their StarOffice counterparts, Rogers said. Users can set Word and Excel as their default file formats in StarOffice.

A common complaint lodged against earlier versions of StarOffice pertained to its desktop interface. Previous versions of StarOffice used the StarDesktop, which mimicked a desktop operating system upon launch, displaying icons for the different features and substituting its own toolbar for the user's operating system toolbar. Sun had wanted to standardize the look and feel of the software across different environments, said Rogers, but users disliked it, preferring to work within their chosen desktop environment.

Sun has removed the offending desktop interface, and will now allow users to use their native desktop operating system environments, such as CDE (Common Desktop Environment), the GNOME open-source desktop for Unix environments, and Windows.

Microsoft's share of the business market for office productivity software is estimated at just over 90 percent, said Michael Silver, vice president and research director at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut. Sun has a "somewhat likely" chance of picking up 10 percent total market share by the end of 2004, Silver said, but that depends on future licensing decisions by Microsoft.

Rogers said he expects Sun to garner 10 percent market share one year earlier, by the end of 2003.

"People are angry with Microsoft" for introducing maintenance contracts that have mandated upgrades, Silver said. Microsoft introduced Software Assurance last year, which forces businesses to either enter into long-term licensing contracts to receive free upgrades, or re-purchase a license each time they wish to upgrade after July 31. After users pay an up-front fee, Software Assurance costs 29 percent of the license cost per year of coverage, plus a renewal fee once the contract expires.

If Microsoft were to make its licensing rules less stringent, and remove the required update clause from its maintenance contracts, Sun will have a harder time making any kind of headway against Office, Silver said. However, Microsoft is not likely to change the agreements, he said.

Sun will distribute StarOffice through several Linux distributors, who will bundle the StarOffice product into their versions -- or "distributions" -- of the open-source operating system. Sun will license StarOffice 6.0 to MandrakeSoft Inc., SuSE Linux AG, Turbolinux Inc., and Ximian Inc. for inclusion with their products, and additional companies are in negotiations with Sun to bundle either StarOffice or the open-source version Openoffice.org, Rogers said. Also, Sun will announce agreements with PC manufacturers next month to ship StarOffice 6.0 in their products, Rogers said.

OpenOffice.org 1.0 was released on May 1. It lacks some of the additional features of 6.0, but is available as a free download. The new open-source version was developed by its namesake open-source community, which is headquartered online at http://www.openoffice.org. Users in Asia-Pacific will find support for Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Japanese, and Korean languages with StarSuite, the branded version to be sold in Asia. StarOffice has seen strong interest in countries where Office is not a dominant player, including China, where the Ministry of Education will receive several million licenses at no charge, Rogers said.

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