Sun to charge for next StarOffice

In a move that could undercut its anti-Microsoft campaign, the company plans to start charging for the next version of its StarOffice software, a source says.

Stephen Shankland
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In a move that could undercut its anti-Microsoft campaign, Sun Microsystems plans to start charging for the next version of its StarOffice software, a suite of programs that competes with Microsoft Office but runs on Linux and Solaris as well as on Windows.

Sun has been offering StarOffice as a free download since acquiring the German company Star Division in 1999. But Sun plans to start charging for version 6.0, due to arrive in the second half of May, a source familiar with the plan said.

Sun declined to comment on the matter. "We aren't announcing any pricing changes for StarOffice," said spokesman Russ Castronovo.

German publisher Heise Online, however, quoted Martin Haerling, a Sun marketing director, as saying the move would allow Sun to fund long-term advancement of the product. The company would charge for Linux and Windows versions of StarOffice but keep the Solaris version free, the publication said.

The change was presaged by Sun's withdrawal of the 6.0 beta at the end of 2001, which Sun at the time explained by saying it had enough information.

Charging could undermine Sun's anti-Microsoft campaign. With a free StarOffice, Sun has been able to argue that it's offering a way around the "Microsoft tax," the cost of buying Microsoft products essential to business, said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky.

But a price tag on StarOffice would mean "they lose the ability to use this as an attack weapon" against Microsoft, Kusnetzky said.

Sun also could alienate Linux users--customers Sun has been courting in its battle to undermine Microsoft.

"Bearing in mind that there is not exactly an overwhelming demand for Linux on the desktop, charging for the Linux version will mean that they will basically get no money from that direction," wrote one reader at the Slashdot.org "news for nerds" discussion site. "It's a bad idea because Sun is a competitor of Microsoft, and Linux is challenging Microsoft for the desktop, and your enemy's enemy is your friend."

Others wrote, however, that they'd be willing to pay for StarOffice, as long as it isn't too expensive.

The source familiar with Sun's plan said a likely price range was between $50 and $100, though many details remain unsettled.

Others said they'd still use OpenOffice, the open-source version of StarOffice that Sun launched in 2000.

One key difference between OpenOffice and StarOffice is in spell checking. OpenOffice comes with spell-checking software but not a dictionary, though one can be downloaded. Other features missing from OpenOffice are some Asian fonts, the Adabas personal database, clip art and some filters for importing files from other software products.

Sun's free StarOffice plan was hatched in the days of the Internet business boom, when Sun was riding high, Linux was heavily hyped and investors had patience with money-losing strategies that could pay off in the long term.

Now things are much grimmer, with companies looking for every cost-cutting move possible. Sun likely was seeking ways to charge for intellectual property, Kusnetzky said. "My suspicion is their revenue stream has not been as strong as they would like," he said.

In the overall office-suite market, Microsoft has the vast majority of the revenue--about 93 percent--Kusnetzky said. Among Linux users though, StarOffice's popularity increases, he said.

Sun's move could boost the fortunes of other Linux software suites, such as AbiWord, Koffice and VistaSource's AnywareOffice.