The two companies are cooperating on a version of Sun's StarOffice productivity software for Mac OS X. The plan has one rival in mind: Microsoft Office.
Sun has been looking for hardware allies in its long-running quest to popularize StarOffice, which competes against Microsoft Office. To date, no major PC makers have pledged to heavily promote StarOffice.
Apple also gains a friend to help counter its increasingly contentious relationship with Microsoft, which has been struggling with sales of its Office v. X suite for Macintosh. Microsoft expected to sell 750,000 copies of the software; since its release last November, only 300,000 copies of Mac Office have sold.
The partnership is expected to produce a Java-based version of OpenOffice by the end of the year, followed by a commercial StarOffice release sometime in 2003.
"I think you can see OpenOffice running solid on OS X by the end of this calendar year," said Tony Siress, Sun's senior director of desktop marketing solutions.
Until now, Sun did not plan a version of StarOffice for OS X, although the Microsoft Office competitor is available for Linux, Solaris and Windows. An open-source version of the software, called OpenOffice, had already been planned for OS X. OpenOffice.org released a developer build of the product on Thursday.
Corel stopped supporting WordPerfect for the Mac several years ago, which eliminated Office's biggest competitor. Apple distributes AppleWorks on consumer systems, but the mini-productivity software package is not available on professional systems. However, ThinkFree sells a $50 Office suite using Java.
But Sun's stature in the corporate market, StarOffice's cross-platform support and its ability to work with Office file formats could pose a growing threat to Microsoft. Sun is also considering offering StarOffice for free, where Office v .X typically costs $300 to $500.
"It certainly gives Sun a better cross-platform story, because they don't support a major platform," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver.
Cooperation between Apple and Sun also could further erode Apple's increasingly deteriorating relationship with Microsoft, which reached a new low before this month's Macworld Expo in New York. Microsoft, in part, blamed Apple's marketing of OS X for disappointing sales of Mac Office.
"This could end up fracturing a relationship that's a bit precarious anyway," Gartner's Silver said.
Sun executives, however, say Apple knows what it's doing. "Historically, Apple was a little bit worried about working with us because of their relationship with Microsoft," Siress said. Now, "Microsoft is mad, and Apple's coming at them hardcore."
Brian Croll, Apple's senior director of software product marketing, was reluctant to reveal the extent of his company's commitment to Sun. But he made clear the companies are cooperating at least to some extent on StarOffice.
"We've been working with a lot of open-source developers out there," he said. "We've been aggressive in helping the community develop their own code, as well as move it over to our own platform. I think OpenOffice and eventually StarOffice really bears that out."
Tough task ahead
One of the biggest challenges facing Sun is supporting Mac OS X's Aqua interface and Quartz 2D rendering engine.
The first issue is logistical. StarOffice uses a consistent interface across all operating systems, something Sun would have to consider changing for Mac OS X. But completing the task would be daunting, and is not something the company may complete before a first release, Siress said.
Supporting Quartz is a separate problem. OpenOffice uses different graphics, called x11, which isn't supported on OS X without special software.
"The current release of OpenOffice for Mac OS X requires x11," Siress said. "I've got my Hamburg (Germany) team working on eliminating that requirement right now and using Java."
As development teams from the two companies work more closely together, they've learned the task ahead may mean compromises if there is to be a Java-version of OpenOffice by the end of the year.
"We're about 30 days from having a plan," Siress said. "We didn't understand all of Quartz, and the people at Apple didn't understand the infrastructure of StarOffice."
To facilitate the process, Apple developers "have been working in the StarOffice source code," he added.
Shooting or falling StarOffice?
Analysts agree that StarOffice would likely crank up the pressure on Microsoft Office, but they're not convinced the product is mature enough to win a showdown.
"My experience is that StarOffice is just not a widely popular productivity suite," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal. "Most people looking for a productivity package are interested in Office."
Silver says that the compromises Sun might have to make, particularly with the Mac OS X interface, could work to ThinkFree's or Office's advantage.
"If you have two products, one that takes advantage of Aqua and Quartz and one that doesn't, the one that does could be more compelling," he said. "But then again, in the Mac market, where there are lots of consumers, free is probably good enough."
Then again, OpenOffice would be free, too. But Siress pointed out the commercial product would come with fonts and other extras that must be licensed and would not be available in an open-source product.
"The fonts and added tools are certainly going to make it more compelling for users looking for Office compatibility," Silver said.
Both Deal and Silver concluded if nothing else, an OS X version of StarOffice would appeal to the large number of anti-Microsoft users on the Mac.
"For some die-hard Mac users, who certainly have a bone to pick with Microsoft, a Sun-Apple combination would seem like the perfect symbiotic relationship," Deal said.
Ultimately, the success of StarOffice on OS X might come down to Apple, and not Sun.
"I don't want to sell StarOffice for OS X," Siress said. "I want Apple to bundle it. I'll give them the code. I'd love it if I could get the team at Apple to do joint development and they distribute it at no cost--that it's their product. Nobody makes a product more beautiful on Apple than Apple."