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Sun's OpenOffice open for business

A competitor to Microsoft's ubiquitous Office desktop software, Sun's OpenOffice is the open-source version of the company's StarOffice software suite.

Sun Microsystems and its open-source allies have released version 1.0 of OpenOffice, a free version of Sun's StarOffice desktop software and a competitor to Microsoft Office.

OpenOffice is based on the same StarOffice code but does not include a database product, a dictionary or technical support from Sun.

Several competing products to Microsoft Office exist, but StarOffice and OpenOffice are set apart from the pack by their ability to read and write, for the most part, Microsoft's proprietary document formats.

Despite the dominance of Microsoft Office in the market, Sun aspires to increase the reach of StarOffice and OpenOffice. The company has made the prevalence of Microsoft Office an issue in its antitrust suit against the software giant.

Version 5.2 of StarOffice was free, but Sun will charge for version 6 when it starts shipping later this month. StarOffice is part of the newly unified Open Network Environment (Sun ONE) software group to be managed by Jonathan Schwartz.

OpenOffice, governed by the General Public License (GPL), runs on Windows, the Linux operating system and Sun's Solaris operating system. The product's collaborative development process is hosted by CollabNet, whose software is designed to let numerous people work on the same project.

Open-source software is publicly available, and anyone is free to see, modify and distribute the underlying "source code" of the software. In practice, though, there are social constraints regarding which programmers have authority to change the main version of a software project.

The proprietary controls over software products such as Microsoft Office are far more stringent. Although Microsoft has a vast and active developer community, its rules prevent it from open-source activities, such as a recent event that gathered 100 volunteers to translate OpenOffice so it's usable in Hungarian.

The open nature of Sun's project also allows different versions of the software to be designed for different computers. Programmers are working on versions of OpenOffice for other operating systems, including Apple's Mac OS X, SGI's Irix, and the FreeBSD version of Unix.

Another practical hurdle to public involvement in open-source projects as large as OpenOffice is learning the hundreds of thousands of lines of programming code. It took years, for example, for the Mozilla open-source browser effort launched by Netscape to approach version 1.0.