Sun to begin charging for StarOffice

After giving away free downloads of its StarOffice office productivity suite for more than two years, Sun Microsystems Inc. today announced that it will begin charging for the software beginning in May, although it plans to include support and services to users.

In an announcement today, Sun said that its next version of the suite, StarOffice 6.0, will be released in May under a tiered, per-user pricing structure. The prices are not yet being released, according to the company.

Mike Rogers, a vice-president of office and desktop productivity applications at the company, said the move is being made because StarOffice user companies have said they would be willing to pay for the software if it came with support.

“We’ve responded to the feedback,” he said. “We want people to use this product … and adopt it.”

While Sun will discontinue its free downloads of StarOffice when it begins selling the suite in May, it will continue to enable no-charge downloads of the open-source version of the application, which is available through the project. Sun will continue to support the development of the open-source product through, Rogers said.

The two products aren’t identical, but offer substantially the same source code, he said. The major differences are that the free version doesn’t include third-party features, including some fonts, filters and foreign language tools. “In many cases, the features will be there, but they won’t be identical features,” Rogers said.

By providing the retail and business versions of the suite, along with the free open-source version, Sun will serve both ends of the market, he said. Sun had nearly 1 million download requests for StarOffice 6.0 beta in just three months, he said.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said that charging for the suite could give Sun some credibility among enterprise decision-makers who might have previously looked away from the suite because it was free.

“The problem with a free product is no one really believes you’re going to stick with it” as a manufacturer, Enderle said. “Corporate users want something they can wrap their arms around” that has a viable business model.

Enderle said that Sun may get some traction with the new fee-based suite, because many corporate customers are still angry at Microsoft Corp. in connection with the higher licensing fees it announced for its Microsoft Office suite last year. “The customers took it as a tax increase” for using Microsoft’s products, he said.

But another analyst, Joshua Greenbaum at Enterprise Application Consulting in Daly City, Calif., called Sun’s move “much ado about nothing.”

“Without a doubt, the Microsoft monopoly [in the office suite market] is so well established,” Greenbaum said. “So it could have been the world’s greatest office suite and it still wouldn’t have made a dent. That’s not Sun’s fault.”

Sun said it will continue to distribute StarOffice 6.0 through agreements with hardware OEMs, Linux distributors and software vendors. The retail boxed version will include a software CD and user manual, Web-based training and a bundled support incident certificate.

StarOffice includes applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawing, Web publishing, charting, formula-editing and database uses. The suite is available for Windows, Linux and Sun Solaris operating systems.