Sun Microsystems is offering distributors and OEMs backline support for the OpenOffice.org productivity suite, which is a free alternative to its own branded StarOffice offering.
Sun also announced Dec. 17 that it has created a StarOffice server product, which is a large batch conversion engine that converts documents in any of the 40 formats supported by StarOffice into a PDF or ODF, and which can process about 100 documents a minute, Mark Herring, senior director at Sun's Network.com, told eWEEK.
The product, with a list price of $11,000 a server, is based on the basic StarOffice 8 product without the user interface and is targeted at enterprises and governments that want to standardize their documents into one of those formats, Herring said.
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With regard to the backline support move, he said it is part of Sun's strategy to move away from charging for the software and toward providing a range of services and support for a fee.
Backline support for OpenOffice will start at $20 a user per year for 24-by-7 phone and e-mail support, but that price drops based on volume, Herring said.
"Our target audience with this backline support is distributors and OEMs, rather than consumers, and the goal is that, if they have an issue, we will create a patch for that, and then work to have that fix incorporated into the product's code base," he said.
Sun already has much of the infrastructure in place since it has been providing backline support on an ad hoc basis to some enterprises, primarily in France and Germany, where many of the product's developers are located.
Consumers who buy StarOffice, which has a suggested retail price of $69.95 a copy, also get phone and e-mail support, which is not physically offered by Sun but has been outsourced to a third party. However, there is no plan to offer that kind of frontline, end-user support for OpenOffice.org at this time, he said.
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Sun also is clear about its business model around StarOffice and OpenOffice. "If we could get the whole world to use OpenOffice, with us providing the backline support for all the distributors, that is a way more interesting model for us than selling an extra copy of StarOffice," Herring said.
Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said the move makes sense for Sun.
"It's not exactly StarOffice by another name, but it's close," Haff said. "The fact is that OpenOffice has the name and StarOffice really doesn't. So it makes sense to offer support for the product that people have actually heard of."
While he acknowledged that StarOffice 8 still cannot compete against Microsoft Office for those power users who need PowerPoint everyday and do financial analysis with Excel, Herring said there was a lot of uptake and interest from governments and agencies that wanted to standardize their documents using the Open Document Format.
"With Microsoft dragging its feet with regard to its own Office format, and completely dragging its feet with regard to ODF, there is an uptick in interest in those products that embrace true open formats, like OpenOffice.org, StarOffice and others," he said.
There are about a million downloads of OpenOffice a week, which excludes the copies included with the various Linux distributions as well as through things such as the Google Pack, Herring said.
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While those numbers are significant, they were insufficient to displace Microsoft's dominance anytime soon, he said, but there were many populous nations that could not afford Microsoft Office and are looking to get a free productivity product.
However, Herring said it would still take a while for a real tipping point to happen on that front. "The market is well poised and, with companies like IBM supporting OpenOffice.org, we have all the players in one camp—except Microsoft. Is this shift going to happen overnight, tomorrow, next week? No, but there is a gradual recognition of the importance of open standards, with OpenOffice being the de facto way of doing that," he said.
Sun on Dec. 17 also released StarOffice 8 update 8, which is based on the OpenOffice.org 2.3 release, and includes a completely new charting engine as well as increased stability and reliability. New functionality includes the ability to export a document to Wikipedia, while the calculator and formulator versions now support matrix formulas.
"We also spent a lot of time and energy on bringing the ability to add extensions to the product, very much like the plug-ins for Firefox. Essentially this means that instead of loading the base product with new functionality, users can download extensions that sit on top of the base product," Herring said.
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Sun also will officially release the latest of these extensions Dec. 17, which is a presentation minimizer, a set of wizards that helps remove unwanted graphics, charts and notes from a StarOffice or PowerPoint presentation, yielding an average 55 percent reduction in file size, he said.
Other extensions include eFax, which allows faxes to be sent and received from inside the product, as well as a report builder, which lets users pull up a set of sophisticated queries from any SQL database and then format them inside StarOffice, he said.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, editor of Linux-Watch, contributed to this article.
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