Users beginning to consider Star Office

End-user unrest over Microsoft's enterprise licensing plan may prompt some companies to move from the Microsoft Office suite to rival Sun Microsystems' personal productivity suite, StarOffice, according to research group Gartner.

Australian users agree claiming Microsoft's "uncertain" licensing plans has forced business to seek out alternatives and trial StarOffice.

Ray Beatty, secretary of the 10,000-member Melbourne PC User Group, said Sun had the foundation for selling a business case for moving to Star Office because of the company's "very high skill and development levels", but would have to keep up with Microsoft because of the pervasiveness of Office in the enterprise.

"Australia has a long way to go in adopting desktop software [alternatives] like Star Office because Microsoft is extremely dominant here," Beatty said.

However, Beatty pointed out Microsoft's enterprise licensing plan was full of "uncertainties" and has drawn complaints from many firms, which said it will raise their costs.

While Australian business users are growing more interested in the suite, Beatty said they are only trialing the product at this stage, because it is "more complicated" to use than Office. He feels StarOffice will only become a success in mainstream computing if it integrates seamlessly with other systems.

"A corporation isn't going to use a system that doesn't talk to its other core business systems. Conversions are always hard, and frankly, Microsoft doesn't make it any easier for the customer. They're not terribly receptive when anyone experiences problems around interoperability with their products," he said.

StarOffice is Sun's suite of applications for word processing, e-mail management and spreadsheets. It is seen within the open-source software community as a key tool to take on Microsoft in the PC desktop market.

The worldwide adoption rate for StarOffice is around 2 per cent of corporate users, according to Gartner.

Gartner estimates that StarOffice has a better-than-even chance of taking 10 per cent of the office productivity suite market at Microsoft's expense by the end of 2004.

Gartner analyst Michael Silver said some firms are beginning to weigh the cost and licensing terms of Microsoft's Office against StarOffice's improving compatibility with Microsoft file formats and its expected lower pricing.

"StarOffice has a chance, based on [improved] compatibility, some mind share and Microsoft missteps," said Silver. But concerns about migration costs, end-user training, converting documents and Sun's ability to support new deployments could deter companies, he said.

However, Microsoft Australia Office product manager Miles Gustafson says StarOffice does not rate a mention among the vendors' corporate clients, saying the take-up rate globally would struggle to hit 1 per cent.

Gustafson argues the upgrade cost argument was only one of several concerns when examining the big picture of enterprise software investments. "It's the total cost of ownership (TCO) across the whole desktop, and also manageability and product compatibility within the software suite itself, which are our customers' main concerns," he said.

Microsoft did not see Sun's rival desktop suite as a threat, Gustafson maintained. "When someone comes and rubs a free product in your face, customers will not move to it even if they're concerned with [Microsoft's] upgrade costs," he said. "Primarily they want a company to show the real value and TCO of their software. I can't see any compelling arguments from Sun to address those issues."

Microsoft holds just over 90 per cent market share in the desktop productivity space with Office, followed a few percentage points behind by Lotus SmartSuite, Apple Claris and Sun Star Office, Gartner estimates.

Gartner's predicted 10 per cent market share for StarOffice may seem small, but it's likely the boldest prediction to date of a product with the potential to dent Microsoft's desktop market share.

Sun intends to begin charging for StarOffice when version 6.0 is released by the end of next month, but it will couple that with support services. Pricing hasn't been announced, but a Sun official said Gartner's estimate of $US25 to $US75 per user, depending on volume, is in the ballpark.

The change to a pricing model is intended to let users know that StarOffice is "a committed, sustainable offering", Tony Siress, a senior director of marketing at Sun, said.

StarOffice currently has about 10 million users worldwide and is available for free, but with minimal support.

-- Matt Berger contributed to this article

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