Sun Microsystems last week confirmed that it plans to open source its StarOffice personal productivity applications suite under a General Public Licence (GPL) agreement in an attempt to take market share away from Microsoft's rival Office product.
But opening up the suite's source code could potentially hurt Office resellers and will give the fledgling offering a lift by enabling software developers other than Sun itself to boost its functionality. It could also dent Microsoft's plans to make its Office suite available through application service providers (ASPs).
The hardware supplier also intends to form OpenOffice.org, which will be managed by Collab.Net, and serve as a co-ordination point for further development of the source code, the definition of XML-based file formats, and the definition of language-independent office application programming interfaces.
Marco Boerries, Sun's vice president of webtop and application software, said: "Sun's open sourcing of StarOffice is the single largest open source software contribution in public licence history and adds a key application suite to the open source portfolio. This announcement will leverage StarOffice's role as the leading productivity suite for multiple platforms."
Tim O'Reilly, chief executive at analyst company O'Reilly and Associates, said the availability of StarOffice under the GPL agreement will give Linux a boost on the desktop.
Jon Collins, a senior analyst at Bloor Research, said the move made sense because in the future, StarOffice would be distributed through ASPs that may want to adapt and modify the software. "The future of StarOffice is integration with platforms other than the PC, and delivery by ASPs," he said. "The main question is whether enough open source developers will be attracted to working on the suite."
He added that the suite had not really taken off as a replacement to Office because Microsoft's installed base had not perceived any clear benefits in migrating. StarOffice was aimed at consumers, and there would be a configuration overhead and learning curve if it was adopted by businesses, he claimed.
Sun acquired Star, the original developers of StarOffice, in August last year for $74m (£50m) in stock. The suite has recently been gaining in popularity and, according to figures from Sun, about 15 million copies have been distributed to customers over the last 10 months, three million of them downloaded from Sun's website. The other 12 million copies were distributed by Linux and PC vendors.
Trevor Doull, technical manager at Sun reseller ABC, said the move presented a good opportunity for Linux-based resellers. "Microsoft has a monopoly in the PC market, but it does not have a competitive product for Linux. Making StarOffice open source makes it easier to use and to customise. Resellers will be more willing to incorporate it into solutions, and being free, it lowers costs," he explained.
Jim Carroll, regional sales manager for Sun at Computacenter, said StarOffice proved there is a viable alternative to Microsoft's Office. "Sun is an open systems company, while Microsoft is proprietary. They are fundamentally different business models. Sun knows Microsoft is the market leader, so by making StarOffice open to everyone, it will increase its share. Look what happened to Sparc and Java," he said.
But Tim Hall, business development director at reseller Bytes Technology Group, poured cold water on the scheme. "Making StarOffice open source will not make it attractive to larger customers where the price of Microsoft Office is insignificant," he said.
"They will only spend time on a product where there is a large market, and StarOffice doesn't have that," he added. "Sun is just saying 'Here's one in the eye for Microsoft.' But it really wasn't selling, so Sun has had to give it away."
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