Sun sets on free office software

This week Sun Microsystems is expected to unveil a startling new feature for its StarOffice Suite of office applications: a price.

Until now, StarOffice had been available as a free download or with a nominal price to cover manuals and media. In March, Sun announced that StarOffice 6.0 would for the first time carry an as-yet-undisclosed price tag. Sun has said the final retail cost will be under US$100 per user.

Version 6.0, besides having an array of new features, also will be sold with end-user support, training, and software upgrade services. Various retail channels, including online vendors, will sell StarOffice. The retail package will include a CD, user manual, Web-based training course, and run on Linux, Microsoft Windows, and Sun's own Solaris operating systems.

A free, but unsupported version will still be available via http://www.openoffice.org, which is a Sun-founded organisation to oversee the public, open source development of StarOffice. Sun executives have pledged to work closely with the OpenOffice community, and to write code changes directly into the OpenOffice codebase.

In interviews, Sun officials have disclosed that the new release will have a wide array of bug fixes, and integrate some third-party products, such as file format filters, and internationalisation code for non-English users.

One key part of Version 6.0 is an open XML file format that will underlie StarOffice documents. Sun is promoting the format as an open standard that can, and should, replace the de facto standard format created by Microsoft Office.

The 'free-no-fee' strategy had been adopted by Sun in 1999, when it acquired the software from a German company, Star Division, in an attempt to create a Web-based group of "thin client" office applications that could challenge Microsoft's overwhelmingly dominant Microsoft Office. About a year later, it released the source code under an open source license via http://www.openoffice.orgThe night's sleep of Microsoft Office executives remained undisturbed.

Sun officials continue to insist that StarOffice has "momentum" in the market: Sun says that it received one million download requests for the upcoming Version 6.0 in just the past three months. The current release is 5.2 and includes applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and data management.

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