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9/27/2005
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Sun Updates StarOffice; Touts Open Document Advantage Over Microsoft

StarOffice 8, which runs on Windows, Linux, and Solaris, supports the Open Document Format. ODF, which is not supported by Microsoft, was recently embraced by Massachusetts as a standard for government purchasing, and other government agencies are expected to follow.

Sun Microsystems updated its suite of desktop productivity software, StarOffice, on Tuesday, and said it was going to push the fact that its suite, not Microsoft's, supports the Open Document Format (ODF) that's becoming a wedge between some governments and Microsoft.

StarOffice 8, which runs on Windows, Linux, and Solaris operating systems, includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation maker, and database. It's based on the OpenOffice.org open-source code, which was handed to the group by Sun in 2000.

"For most customers and in the short term, the biggest selling point to StarOffice 8 is the enhanced Microsoft Office compatibility," said Herb Hinstorff, the director of marketing for Sun's client systems group "People familiar with Office can load the program and go."

In the longer-run, though, Sun's betting on ODF to put StarOffice on the map, and steal market share from Microsoft. "Longer term, ODF will be crucial as more and more governments take a look at it," Hinstorff said. "They don't want their documents locked to a single program.

"And large companies are starting to see the same benefit. They want to be able to access their documents in 10 to 20 years, too."

Hinstorff mentioned Massachusetts specifically as one of the governments which has tipped toward ODF and away from Microsoft Office's document formats.

"StarOffice 8 is the first time organizations can have a non-proprietary format for data that will basically free governments like Massachusetts, as well as corporations, from locked-in data."

The dustup in Massachusetts, and to some extent also in the European Union -- which has recommended ODF as the basis for standard file formats -- is really unnecessary, said one analyst, who is bewildered by Microsoft's refusal to take a page from StarOffice and its yet-to-be-released sibling, OpenOffice.org 2.0.

"Given [Microsoft's] efforts in recent years to participate in open standards, I'm really surprised to see them digging in their heels on ODF," said Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Redmond, Wash.-based research firm dedicated to tracking the giant developer's moves.

"Right now they're opening the door to government purchases of OpenOffice.org and StarOffice," he added. "I think those competitors are more dangerous to Microsoft than Linux. The difference in price between Office and those products is really gargantuan, especially for high volume customers. If Microsoft is really forced to compete on price, that would be very hard on the company."

No kidding. Microsoft's profit margin on Office is in the neighborhood of 80 percent, said DeGroot, and is a huge contributor to Microsoft's bottom line.

"Supporting ODF would simply remove document format as a reason for purchases of StarOffice, especially by governments," said DeGroot. "It seems to be a very simple and necessary measure for Microsoft to prevent these alternative suites from getting a foothold."

For its part, Sun's hoping that Microsoft won't see the logic in ODF, and will continue to turn its back on the standard. "53 million people have downloaded either StarOffice or OpenOffice.org," said Hinstorff. That's a real business opportunity."

It's for that very reason that DeGroot believes Microsoft will wise up. I expect them to support ODF," he said. "I don't have any insider information, I haven't heard Microsoft say anything but that they won't support ODF, but I really find it hard to believe that when the rubber hits the road, they won't support it.

"The risk to Microsoft is so great that I don't see how it's worth digging in on this."

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