Sun CEO Scott McNealy is a funny guy, and he didn’t disappoint the crowd at his recent appearance in Toronto. In addition to the yuks, though, McNealy also dished up a serious helping of his trademarked dislike for Microsoft.

McNealy has always used humour to get his message across, and the fun parts of his talk could be summed up as, “A few guys from Palo Alto walk into a bar and then kill Microsoft.” One of the better bits went like this: “We are the dot in, Compaq and SGI are the slashes, and Microsoft is the colon.”

We all laughed.

But McNealy also used the talk to showcase the latest batch of weapons Sun is aiming towards Redmond. Most obviously targeting Microsoft’s wallet is StarOffice, Sun’s newly-acquired, free-for-the-asking Office clone.

StarOffice delivers a word processor, spreadsheet, HTML editor, vector and bitmap graphics editor, database, e-mail, a calendar and a task manager, plus tools for presentations and charts. And it’s free for personal use and free for commercial use. Users pay for services and support, but the software itself – I’m going to say it again – is free. And to add variety to value, StarOffice will run under Windows (95, 98 and NT), OS/2, Sun’s Solaris, Java runtime environments and Linux.

As a big chunk of Microsoft’s revenue comes directly from Office, this freebie is a blatant anti-Microsoft gambit.

And it’s a good one. We installed StarOffice 5.1 from a CD onto an office test machine. The installation took about 20 minutes, went without a hitch, and ended with the friendly words: “We wish you a lot of fun and success with StarOffice.” Nice touch.

More importantly, the suite works well, although we only took an extended look at the word processor (this column was written in StarOffice). The app is very Word-like: shortcuts – such as Ctrl-A for Select All and Ctrl-X for Cut – are copied, and the menus and toolbars are almost identical. More importantly, StarOffice can save in Word 6, 95 and 97 formats, as well as rich text format and plain text for Windows, Macintosh, Unix and DOS. It also imports and exports Excel and PowerPoint files.

In our tests, StarOffice documents saved in Word 95 format opened with no problem in Word, although published reviews have reported revision marks are not retained from StarOffice to Word, although the revisions themselves translate okay.

The one serious criticism of StarOffice is that it tries to replace the Windows interface. In its default setting, the suite imposes a function called an Integrated Desktop which replaces the Windows Start button and the taskbar with StarOffice versions. The button still says “Start” – albeit with a different icon – and gives access to the same menus. The suite also offers a new desktop, which is essentially a more cluttered version of the original. The Integrated Desktop can be turned off, but then you get two Start buttons and two taskbars.

So why did Sun bother? Easy: this is an unabashed attempt to visually remove Windows from the user’s view. And it is as annoying as it is unabashed. But all software comes with annoying glitches and dumb decisions, and overall StarOffice is a good-quality, free Office replacement.

More than that though, it forms the underpinnings of Sun’s Hot Desk initiative, a new environment which will see corporate users running applications and data off Sun servers through new Sun Ray 1 “enterprise appliances.” It’s the NC vision revisited. McNealy said NCs haven’t taken off because they had no Office-type suite, but with a portable, browser-based version of StarOffice in the works, the suite is in an even better position to hit Microsoft where it hurts.