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Sun hints at new strategy with open-source office software

The company finally finds a software project it likes that it's willing to let others control.

Sun Microsystems finally has found a software project it likes that it's willing to let others control.

Sun will announce today, as previously reported, that it will open the source code for the next version of its StarOffice suite of productivity software, said Marco Boerries, head of the software project that Sun acquired for $73.5 million.

The company is timing the announcement to coincide with the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. The four-day event, which lasts through tomorrow, is taking place in Monterey, Calif.

Although Sun has opened its code to scrutiny and contributions by others with software such as its prized Java, it hasn't released control. But with StarOffice, two things are different.

First, Sun is using Gnu's General Public License, which allows anyone to change the software however they wish--though those changes may not catch on in the mainstream version. Second, Sun is setting up the Foundation to control the software, yet the company will hold only a minority stake in the foundation's management committee.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun will maintain a stronger influence in practical reality, though, because the company employs so many of the developers familiar with StarOffice. Boerries said several hundred people at Sun work on the Star products.

StarOffice, which Sun allows people to download for free, has a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation package and other software for general office use. It competes with Applix's VistaSource software, which like StarOffice runs on Linux and several other operating systems. StarOffice also competes with the dominant Microsoft Office for Windows and Corel's nascent Word Perfect Office for Linux.

Open-source software can be freely modified by anyone, and programming is shared among those who want to contribute. One advantage of releasing software as open source is that volunteers can translate it to new environments. For example, StarOffice could be brought to Mac OS.

Boerries acknowledged it will take some time before other developers become familiar with StarOffice as they are with the highlight of the open-source world, the Linux operating system.

But eventually, he believes it will become as big a deal.

"In the next three years, is going to have the same impact in the office suite market as Linux did in the operating system market," Boerries said.

The largest Linux companies--Red Hat, SuSE, TurboLinux, Caldera Systems, Mandrakesoft and others--have signed agreements to redistribute StarOffice, Sun said.

The OpenOffice group will control the file formats, which will use the XML data description technology. Though StarOffice can read and write Microsoft Office formats, currently StarOffice files must be saved in Microsoft Office formats for Microsoft Office users to read them, he said. Microsoft could supply import filters to change that situation, but the company declined earlier, and Boerries doesn't consider it likely that it would.

The next version of the software, 6.0, will allow programs such as the word processor to be run by themselves instead of only as a part of the StarOffice suite, Boerries said.

Sun also will release the source code of the StarPortal software, a delayed future version of the software that's designed to run primarily on central servers so that people can tap into it from handheld computers, cell phones, desktop computers or other devices. Sun hasn't decided which license to release that version under, however.

Sun's revenue strategy with StarPortal is twofold. First, companies that want to offer it as a service will want to pay for around-the-clock technical support that Sun will provide. Second, though the server component of StarPortal will run on Windows and Linux as well as Sun's Solaris, Boerries said Sun still expects many people will choose Sun servers for the job.

StarPortal will use the same file formats and interfaces as StarOffice, he added.

A first round of beta testing with less than 50 customers began in January. Sun is in the midst of a second round with about 150 people.