Details won't emerge publicly until Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Sun CEO Scott McNealy take the stage on Tuesday at a news conference in Mountain View, Calif. But one strong possibility is a partnership that could help shift personal computing out of Microsoft's domain and into Google's.
The partners have complementary assets for such a task. Sun has the open-source OpenOffice.org software suite and its close relative, StarOffice. It has Java software, which is well suited for network-friendly applications that run on any Java-enabled PC.
As for Google, its products have become daily resources for a vast number of computer users, and it offers a growing suite of software. In addition, it has the ambition of becoming the company that supplies network-based applications.
Google and Sun plan to announce a collaborative effort on Tuesday that analysts speculate could elevate the profile of the OpenOffice.org and Java software packages.
One strong possibility is a partnership that could help shift personal computing out of Microsoft's domain and into Google's.
One person who was possibly an influence on the change is Joerg Heilig, who for years was director of engineering for StarOffice at Sun, but who now apparently is a Google employee. Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said he had heard Heilig had been hired by the search company, and Google's voice mail system includes an employee with that full name.
A hint about the upcoming announcement might lie in Sun President Jonathan Schwartz's blog entry about software distribution, posted Saturday. In recent years, the power of software provision shifted toward Microsoft and away from companies that distribute software, whether through stores or directly to customers, he wrote.
"You used what came bundled into Windows and got a new slug of functionality each time you upgraded. It was a good gig," Schwartz wrote.
Now the shift has gone further, as the Internet has allowed companies "to bypass Microsoft's legendary distribution power," he wrote, specifically mentioning Google as an example.
"Value is returning to the desktop applications, and not simply through Windows Vista," he wrote. "There's a resurgence of interest in resident software that executes on your desktop, yet connects to network services. Without a browser. Like Skype. Or QNext. Or Google Earth. And Java? OpenOffice and StarOffice?"
Google already has a significant collection of software that is dependent on a network rather than being tied to an operating system. They include Gmail for e-mail, the Desktop Search Sidebar (which offers customized news and information based on a computer users's activity), Picasa for photo management and Google Earth for satellite-based maps and geographic information.
A partnership with Sun that provided an office applications suite would round out that list--and dramatically increase the competition between Google and Microsoft, whose Office suite dominates the market for word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software.
"Google could deploy a version of Google Office at any time. The reason they haven't (is) they're not set up to serve enterprises with all the security and name recognition that Sun has," said Stephen Arnold, author of "The Google Legacy: How Google's Internet Search is Transforming Application Software." "That's a very obvious plus for Google," he said.
And Google has mammoth distribution power, O'Grady said. "Google has the ability to get into exponentially more places than does OpenOffice," he said, including places that "may never have heard of (OpenOffice.org) in the first place."
Microsoft counts Office as a major revenue source and continues to develop the product. A beta version of the upcoming Office 12 is due in November. Although the new version has some server-centric features, the product is still fundamentally a PC-based application suite.
Microsoft declined to comment for this story.
There already are close ties between the two companies, observed Caris & Co. analyst Mark Stahlman, who in the early 1990s heard talk at Sun about building the kind of network services that Google now is providing. Among the ties: Google CEO Schmidt was Sun's chief technology officer in the 1990s; John Doerr, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, is on the board of both companies; and Andy Bechtolsheim, a Sun co-founder who returned to the company to launch its Galaxy servers, wrote a check for $100,000 that helped get Google started.
In addition, Google is an active Java user. Since 2004, it has been a member of the Java Community Process steering committee that governs the fate of the technology. Though Java hasn't caught on widely for running desktop software, it has long had the potential to undermine Microsoft's strength by providing an alternative program foundation to Windows.
Other avenues for cooperation between the companies exist. Google's data center could use Sun's "Galaxy" line of AMD Opteron-based x86 servers and, though they're farther afield from Google's current x86-based systems, its upcoming Niagara-based Sparc-Solaris machines that are geared for Web-oriented tasks.
Sun's top two executives have repeatedly praised Google's influence. "Google is probably the most important application your CIO (chief information officer) delivers to you," McNealy said in a speech in September. And Schwartz used Google to highlight Google's power to bypass computing decision-makers and reach directly to the computer users.
"How many CIOs picked Google? Zero. How many employees use it? All of them," Sun's president said in a February speech. "Consumers have a great deal of influence."
Wall Street responded favorably to a news advisory about the Sun-Google partnership, sending Sun's stock up 26 cents, or 7 percent, to $4.19 at the close of trading Monday. Google rose $2.22, or 1 percent, to $318.68.
Microsoft isn't the only company that could suffer from a Google-sponsored thrust to rival desktop computing applications, Interarbor Solutions analyst Dana Gardner said. "IBM is in this game as well with their middleware-to-the-client strategy," he said. IBM's approach combines a version of OpenOffice with browser access to Domino and Notes server software. Its focus, though, is on businesses, while Google also has consumers in its crosshairs.
In the longer term, Sun believes applications will move to the network. That's a possibility even with office applications.
"It seems almost irresistible for Google and Sun to combine Google's ubiquitous reach with Sun's grid, Java and server strengths, to deliver hosted access to resources that could cause some pre-winter chills to run through Redmond," Robert Frances Group analyst Michael Dortch said.
In September, Sun's McNealy reiterated his belief that thin clients will prevail, with central servers handling the heavy lifting of computing rather than PCs.
But centrally hosted office software would require some major engineering to be widely used. In 1999, Sun had plans for a Java-based version of StarOffice, called StarPortal, that could run on the network so that Java-enabled devices could access it. On Monday, though, Sun said, "there are currently no plans for a Java version of StarOffice."