Office Alternatives Explore Server-Based Apps

Sun Microsystems, with its StarOffice suite, and the open-source consider server-based applications as a way to boost security, portability and deployment.

While Microsoft quietly pursues developing new servers for its Microsoft Office applications, Sun Microsystems StarOffice and the open-source are taking another route with their applications. Citing security, portability and deployment benefits, both see offering server-based applications as a future option.

In fact, Sun took it so seriously that it went down this path several years ago.

"We talked about a server version of office in 2000 and 2001, and demonstrated [it] at JavaOne 2001," said Manish Punjabi, group marketing manager for the user software group at Sun Microsystems Inc. "Three years ago, one could argue the timing was off because the economy was relatively low and the market wasnt ready to absorb it."

Punjabi said todays customers are showing interest and that the server technology has advanced to a point where its imminently possible.

"From Suns standpoint, its definitely under consideration and ties very well with our server hardware and software strengths," Punjabi said. He noted that due to Suns initial forays into the space, the company has architecture in place and the applications have the API hooks necessary to be deployed in a server situation. He wouldnt, however, discuss a time frame for a release.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read about Microsofts win in a patent case concerning its Office suite.

Sun says server-based applications offer several benefits over desktop applications. Rather than installing software on every desktop in an organization, the applications are deployed at the server level. On the security side, viruses often come into an organization via Office attachments, and having them reside on a server makes it potentially easier to monitor. Server-based files and applications are arguably more accessible via the Internet than desktop-based apps, as well.

But that doesnt mean Microsoft will pursue it. Instead, the company will likely offer additional Office Server products on which to more efficiently run desktop-based Office applications and more collaboration features. This allows Microsoft to encourage upgrades to the entire "office system" as a revenue generator.

"A scenario that I dont see happening in the near-term is running Excel [directly] off of a server," said Paul DeGoot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, based in Kirkland, Wash. "I think theres a lot of merit to Suns argument about server-based applications, but that is not popular for Microsoft."

"Microsoft makes too much money from Office for it to even consider putting it on the server," he said. "Theyve been reasonably successful at fighting this off previously, and theres not a lot of reason for Microsoft to say they need to change models." community manager Louis Suarez-Potts sees Microsofts expansion of its servers as yet another way to get enterprises locked into one system, leaving them vulnerable to viruses and "innovation gaps."

"For Microsoft, the only way they seemingly innovate is excluding everything thats happening outside," Suarez-Potts said.

/zimages/6/28571.gifMicrosoft has rolled out a more secure Office 2004 for Mac users. Click here to read more., which on Wednesday celebrated its fourth year in existence (Sun donated the StarOffice source code to the open-source community on Oct. 13, 2000) has also seen its own server-based applications previously. For example, the Linux Terminal Service Project ( demonstrated applications running in a thin-client arrangement.

"It runs amazingly well," Suarez-Potts said. "Its very impressive technology."

Future versions of will be lighter and increasingly modular, which could allow not only more flexibility, but also the ability to more easily offer server-based options of the applications.

"The trend in computing is toward relying less on the physical materiality of desktop computers and more on the ethereal effects of the Web," Suarez-Potts said. Thin clients and server-based applications lend themselves to this idea and could be a viable part of OpenOffice.orgs future.

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