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Is StarOffice ready to take on MS Office?

Chris LeTocq says that if Sun--or anybody else--is serious about challenging Microsoft in the productivity software market, then it must avoid the obvious errors that took down others with similar ambitions.

Sun Microsystems is getting ready to release the sixth test version of its StarOffice productivity software suite. Unfortunately, the company is still delivering the same message, implying that StarOffice is appropriate for corporate desktops.

On its Web site, Sun has this to say about StarOffice: "Markets include small business and home office, education, large enterprise with mixed-platform environments, and government." To be sure, there are markets where StarOffice is appropriate, but--and let's deal with this one right away--the U.S. corporate desktop is not one.

Microsoft's three advantages
You can sum up Microsoft's dominance of the productivity market as resting upon three pillars: the proprietary format of its documents; user familiarity with the Office user interface; and IT organizations' unfamiliarity with users' actual productivity needs.

For a product to be considered as an appropriate productivity alternative, it has to effectively address all of these elements. And that's what Corel's WordPerfect achieved. It provides document formats that interchange reasonably well, when needed, with Office. It's sold to a loyal, albeit small, group of users familiar with the WordPerfect interface and to IT departments representing users who work within a tight community--usually the legal community.

By contrast, StarOffice only gets part of the way there. It provides an acceptable level of document interchange, and Sun has tried to make the user interface more familiar to Office users. But other than citing cost, Sun still fails to provide IT users with a reason to use StarOffice.

Meanwhile, the cost of document interchange issues and user retraining is significant, especially where the IT department doesn't know what its users are doing.

Nevertheless, there are markets that present potential opportunities for Sun.

China views Microsoft's desktop dominance with suspicion, raising the possibility that it will adopt Linux or even StarOffice on Windows. Microsoft's recent increase in licensing fees has inadvertently helped make StarOffice more attractive to Latin America and also to extremely budget-conscious organizations.

Microsoft opens the door
Perhaps the most significant opportunity for StarOffice is the recent increase in Office licensing costs. Our analysis shows that IT organizations are facing an increase of between 22 percent and 40 percent at the highest discount level.

Organizations that would happily budget for a new version of Office every three to four years are not happy about being asked to pay as if they upgraded every two years. As they plan desktop strategies for the next five years, more organizations are considering whether Office on the desktop is what they really need.

That is not to say that they would replace Office for all users, but the price increase is forcing organizations to ask new questions: What is it their users do; what are their productivity processes, and what do they really need? Is there a better application to do their core task? Is there a better approach than one-size-fits-all?

The answer may well lie not with StarOffice as an application, but with the code that Sun makes available via the OpenOffice project. In particular, this code includes the complex file filters that convert Microsoft's proprietary formats to an open XML format. This is code that anybody writing a productivity application can use. The field is open for application vendors to write applications which work well with Microsoft's formats and yet provide the targeted alternatives that IT will want.

StarOffice, and to some extent ThinkFree, have suffered from the belief that they needed to target Office's current depth and breadth. The best approach is to realize that there will always be people in an organization who need the full range of functionality in Office. But a much larger number will only need a good e-mail package that generates reliably formatted Word documents.

To Microsoft's credit, the company has anticipated the challenge. Next year's .Net service is likely to provide users with a targeted application-by-application approach to individual productivity. No subscription fees have been announced but the core functionality will be based around Web-based proprietary XML versions of Microsoft document formats. First up? I'm betting on MyInbox, an Office.Net service with a .Net-based application that provides Word-compatible e-mail.

Bottom line for Sun and StarOffice: If you keep aiming where Microsoft has already been, then your opportunities will be in China. A better tactic is to take aim at where the IT market is going to be and your opportunities will be much wider.

Bottom line for IT organizations: There are going to be a lot of changes in the productivity market. Find out now what your users actually use--and then plan accordingly.