StarOffice basks in Sun

Offering the world a free alternative to Microsoft Office via a simple Web download can be construed in several ways, however, damaging Bill Gates and company is not among them, insisted StarDivision founder Marco Borries.

At the tender age of 16, Borries launched StarDivision and its office productivity applications, including the Web-freebie StarOffice into a world well acquainted with peering outwards through Gates’ Windows.

Cynicism and much laughter ensued with his initial foray into the software development industry, but the determined high school dropout endured the barbs and 15 years later, Borries is a vice-president and general manager of Sun Microsystems Inc.

Speaking in Toronto on Nov. 3, Borries detailed his vision for the next stage in portal computing – StarPortal will deliver word processing, presentation graphics, spreadsheet and other office software tools to any Web browser. StarPortal office productivity software is based on the StarOffice software suite Sun acquired recently along with StarDivision Corp. of Fremont, Calif.

Despite the frequent, comedic jabs Borries volleyed at Microsoft during his presentation, the 31-year-old entrepreneur said giving his StarOffice 5.1 program away for zilch is all about creating a new model for business computing.

“Why are we giving StarOffice away? The main reason is not about making Microsoft unhappy, it’s about breaking ground for Sun and for the customer,” Borries said.

The 65MB program is fully compatible with Microsoft Office and is currently available in eight languages that come in versions for Solaris, Windows NT, OS/2, and Linux (X86) operating environments. Sun will make the binary and source code of StarOffice and StarPortal free to end users.

Borries criticized the purchasing of Office and the subsequent upgrades as being counter-productive to real empowerment.

“The existing business model is not very sustainable,” he charged. “The PC will eventually lose its flavour, soon it’ll be cell phones (that will be important)…StarOffice is providing a new infrastructure.”

Promising that all upgrades to StarOffice will continue to be free, the young visionary explained Sun’s payoff will be reaped through deployment services and not software sales. Specifically, service providers that run on Sun will need to increase their hardware and infrastructure requirements on the Internet. In addition, Sun will approach large corporations and government agencies with a handshake, a smile and a prospect to build up their existing infrastructures.

Although unconventional, Borries is on to something.

In the first two months the StarOffice grab-bag was opened on-line, an estimated 2.2 million users downloaded the program – among them were 450 post-secondary schools from around the globe.

Today, that number is reputed to have swelled significantly. The program is a hit in Borries’ native Germany, commanding over 35 per cent of the market share.

Of the on-line recipients that downloaded StarOffice, Borries said 46 per cent are registered companies. “That’s a $300 value if you look at it the right way,” he remarked. “And Microsoft realizes we’re onto something; initially having 35 per cent of the German market share wasn’t a big deal to a U.S. company. Now, all of a sudden Microsoft announced they’ll have Office for the Web and they claim they’ve been working on it for two years…did anyone miss that announcement in 1997?”

StarOffice will be a fully-supported Sun software application with users receiving a wide array of service offerings, Sun said. The StarOffice interface is somewhat similar in many specifics to the Windows look, but Borries was quick to dismiss any suggestion of a carbon-copy approach.

“First of all, we never intended StarOffice to be a clone,” he stated. “We chose a Microsoft-compliant user interface for one simple reason: it’s the industry standard, so we made it easy for people to switch. In terms of the functionality, we have the equivalent (Microsoft Office) functionality, but we also have enhanced it.”

Moving the masses away from Office isn’t a major concern for Borries or for Sun, he maintained. “The problem isn’t how to interest the people, the interest is already there. Our biggest problem right now is we have too much interest…every company asks us, ‘What is this?’, so obviously there’s a need for an alternative (to Office). Our intent is not to win 100 per cent of the Microsoft Office user base in the first year…we want to give people a choice, an opportunity to step up.”

To obtain StarOffice 5.1 visit to download the program or order a CD.