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Why Sun should GPL StarOffice - page 2

All software should be free?

  • October 14, 1999
  • By Zach Frey

While Sun does sell software, its traditional strength is and has been as a server and workstation vendor. It is tough to see how it could reinvent itself as a desktop software company.

It is possible that the giveaway of StarOffice is a "Netscape" ploy--that is, give the product away to build market share, then make it up by charging for later versions. Netscape did this originally to build a market for the web browser while there was no established browser market. Another possibility is that this is a "Microsoft Internet Explorer" ploy--give the product away to undermine the market share of the established dominant player, and destroy a particular niche as a market. How many people are willing to pay money for a web browser today, for example?

I just don't see this scenario applying. or at least as the driving motivation for Sun. Other than the (potentially temporary) price advantage over Microsoft Office, why should large-scale users (read: corporate IT accounts) pick StarOffice over MS Office when companies such as IBM (the former "nobody got fired for ..." choice) and Corel have been unable to keep, much less gain, ground against the Microsoft onslaught?

Breaking the true Microsoft monopoly

DOJ antitrust trial aside, the real monopoly that Microsoft enjoys these days is the symbiotic link between Office and Windows. People need Windows because Office only runs on Windows, and they need Office because they need to work with Office documents.

And the ubiquity of Office explains part of the popularity of Windows NT as a server platform. A number of the nice collaborative features of Outlook only work in conjunction with Exchange. The "web publishing" features of FrontPage and Office use the proprietary FrontPage extensions, not Internet standards, to work.

Now, from a technical and price standpoint, Windows NT + Exchange + IIS does not compete very well with a Unix/Linux + Sendmail + Apache + Samba combination. Except for that integration with Office, which is still a Microsoft exclusive.

From Sun's viewpoint, every NT sale is a potential Solaris sale lost. So, it makes sense to try to break Microsoft's stranglehold here.

The Web-based Office Suite

Part of Sun's announced plans for StarOffice is to create a Web-based, server-centric version. This would be the classic "thin client" architecture, allowing older PCs or Sun's new SunRay to run StarOffice instead of requiring an up-to-date PC or workstation.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Microsoft has announced that it will be creating a server-centric version of Microsoft Office as well.

At the moment, both of these are vaporware announcements, but should be given some thought. Microsoft, we can be sure, will offer its Office server only on Windows. But StarOffice is already cross-platform. Will it continue to be, or will Sun only offer the server version on Solaris, as a means of selling more Sun servers and SunRays?

Given these uncertainties, the promise of a web-based office suite does not seem like a compelling reason to switch from Microsoft.

Giving StarOffice credibility

If Sun wants StarOffice to displace MS Office in significant volume, it is going to have to give it "long-term credibility" (in Microsoft-speak, this means demonstrating that they cannot be driven out of the market by Microsoft). The best way to do this would be to release the StarOffice source code under a true open-source license, such as the GPL. Once that is done, users could be confident that, no matter what happens, StarOffice will always be available in some form (assuming there is sufficient interest, which there almost certainly would be).

Think of it--no matter what changes in strategic direction Sun might take, no matter even if Sun were to be driven out of business and close its doors, that would not be sufficient to end StarOffice.

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