Sun touts StarOffice as affordable Microsoft alternative

With the latest version of its StarOffice productivity suite hitting the market May 21, Sun Microsystems Inc. is working hard to sell business users on the promise of lower purchasing and licensing costs, while delivering the same capabilities offered by suites from market leader Microsoft Corp.

In an announcement today, Sun said the new StarOffice 6.0 suite will retail for $75.95 per copy, with volume discounts of $50 for more than 150 users and $25 for more than 10,000 users. A single license will allow the suite, which is available for Windows, Linux or Solaris-equipped computers, to be placed on up to five machines.

In a conference call today with analysts and journalists, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's chief strategy officer, said Sun's target for the new suite is to "definitely give CIOs [a] choice" in applications for companies. "It's not going after Microsoft -- that has no value to our customers," he said.

Despite Schwartz's comments, Sun's launch frequently touted StarOffice as an alternative to "proprietary office productivity suites that are expensive and have restrictive licensing policies" -- a clear reference to Microsoft and its Office applications.

Mike Rogers, general manager for desktop and office productivity software at Sun, said the company listened to beta testers and users of trial copies of the new suite to give it the features and capabilities wanted by businesses. "We really believe that 95% of Microsoft Office users will find what they need here," Rogers said. "We have set the bar very high on interoperability and the ability to bring [Microsoft Office file formats] into this seamlessly."

Tim Brennan, manager of the store services group at clothing retailer Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., said StarOffice is now being successfully used on some 1,300 Linux desktops within the company's 330 stores. The Burlington, N.J.-based company will be replacing StarOffice 5.2 with Version 6.0, he said. Only a few users continue to run Microsoft Office products on Windows machines.

Eric Lesatz, vice president of information systems at AB Watley Group Inc., a financial services firm in New York, has rolled out StarOffice 6.0 to 25 of his 75 users, including the replacement of Microsoft Office 97 on about 10 machines.

"To be honest with you, nobody really notices a difference between Microsoft Office and StarOffice," Lesatz said.

For his company, the price difference between the Sun and Microsoft products is a huge factor, he said. "I think after this is all said and done, there will only be a few people here using Microsoft Office. For 98% of the people [here], I would say it's going to do the job," he said.

Analyst Gordon Haff at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said StarOffice has a better chance of taking on Microsoft than the suites from other competitors, including IBM's Lotus and Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect. Lotus and Corel haven't made credible efforts to position and market their products, he said, while Sun is stepping up StarOffice features at a time when many Microsoft Office users are looking for real alternatives.

"Certainly it's at least at the same level of sophistication that Office 97 was in terms of features and capabilities, which is enough for most people," Haff said. "Microsoft seems determined to see how much money it can squeeze out of buyers, but in doing so, they're opening up an opportunity for somebody else to come in."

Not so, said Microsoft spokeswoman Nicole von Kaenel. She said users will continue to see a huge difference in value between the suites from Microsoft and Sun, despite the price differences. "There's a huge distinction between value and price," she said. "That's only the tip of the iceberg."

In March, Sun announced that it would begin charging customers to buy and use the StarOffice suite, which remains an open-source product, beginning with Version 6.0 (see story). Under the retail and volume sales programs, the software will come with full documentation and support options.

Sun found a willing audience in recent months as it has touted the new, fully featured StarOffice release (see story), with many companies beginning to consider StarOffice an alternative because of Microsoft's upcoming and controversial licensing plans.

Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. has estimated that StarOffice has a better-than-even chance of taking 10% of the office productivity suite market by the end of 2004.

StarOffice has been an open-source project since Sun released the code to the open-source community in October 2000 (see story). Sun purchased StarOffice in August 1999 when it acquired Germany-based StarDivision Inc. for $73.5 million.

StarOffice 6.0 has been tested and used by more than 1.8 million users in trials at many businesses, including financial services, retail, manufacturing and high-tech companies, according to Sun.

The new suite uses an open and published XML-based default file format, which includes more robust Microsoft Office import and export filters. The suite works with files from Microsoft Office 95 through XP. The suite includes word processing, graphics, spreadsheet, database, photo editing and other applications.

Sun's free version of the suite, called 1.0, remains free.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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