When you wish upon StarOffice

Here we go again. The never-ending battle of the titans — Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. — entered a new phase recently as Sun launched the latest version of its desktop productivity suite, taking direct aim at the bottom line.

StarOffice version 6, released in May, retails

for about half the price of Microsoft’s Office package (less for enterprise customers) and promises “”transparency”” with other competing products on Linux, Windows and (surprise) Solaris platforms.

It’s a big change from version 5.2, which was free, but to hear Sun and other industry watchers tell it, StarOffice is still a bargain.

In early June, Illuminata Inc. released a report claiming that the new product “”could irrevocably change the computing landscape.”” Essentially, customers fed up with Microsoft’s licensing policies might start shopping elsewhere for their desktop software.

We’ve heard hype like this before, though. I didn’t buy it then, and I sure don’t buy it now.

Sun acquired StarOffice in 1999 and began offering the so-called Office killer for free to anyone who wanted it. Staggering download numbers were reported, and free CDs peppered the desk of many a journalist, including mine. The “”free”” tagline was intriguing and helped fuel the Sun vs. Microsoft, open-source vs. proprietary software feuds that were raging at the time.

I installed the package, tried it out, then erased it from my hard drive. It seems like many IT managers did the same. Racking up the price while banging the same old drum won’t likely make much, if any difference, this time around.

Sure, Microsoft isn’t too popular for its revamped licensing policies. And yes, Linux has established itself as a niche player, proving there is room for cheap and “”alternative”” software in the enteprise.

However, switching to another desktop suite, even if it’s free, can still prove quite costly — and risky. One report claims that it could run companies as much as US$1,200 to swap Office for StarOffice. That includes retraining and time spent bug hunting while converting files from one format to another.

That’s right: transparency may not be as clear as it seems. I remember trying to open Word and Word Pro files with pretty basic formatting (including tabs and bullets) in StarOffice 5.2, only to see little square boxes and page breaks pop up throughout the document. Things may have improved (although Gartner Group Inc. says version 6.0 still can’t handle Microsoft macros), but I doubt IT managers are going to take any chances without some serious testing beforehand.

Piggybacking on Linux’s popularity may not work out, either. Red Hat unceremoniously dumped StarOffice from its product line when Sun began charging original equipment manufacturers for the right to bundle the suite with their own offerings. Matthew Szulik, Red Hat’s CEO, accused Sun of acting like Microsoft, hardly an anti-Redmond rallying cry.

For its part, Gartner claims that charging for StarOffice may help ensure its longer-term viability. The idea is that the business could become self-sustaining, assuming people start buying the product.

This leads to another question. Who’s actually using StarOffice to run their business? Last year, the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency adopted version 5.2 to help manage communications and intelligence systems for the defence department (which used to use VistaSource’s Anyware Office). And lots of folks have been buying the package at amazon.com, according to Sun.

Let’s tally the results. One official enteprise-level installation of the free version of StarOffice (replacing a non-Microsoft competitor), and an initial surge of consumer interest. That’s hardly a market revolt.

Maybe once word gets out, more companies will step forward and test the waters. But that line of argument sounds an awful lot like what was predicted three years ago, when StarOffice was free.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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