- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

Sun Microsystems Inc. is taking some unmerited heat over its StarOffice 6.0 software, which is expected to be released in May.
One month ago in these pages, I said this program would be available to individual users free of charge.
Well, you will be able to get a stripped-down, open-source version of the productivity suite free from www.openoffice.org, but the Sun-branded product, which will have substantial features most users find necessary such as a spell checker for the word processor could cost $40 a copy or more.
Reports last week from a German online publisher (www.heise.de), echoed by British computer Internet news publication the Register (www.theregister.co.uk), indicate that Sun is planning to charge individual users who want to run StarOffice 6.0 on either their Windows- or Linux-based machines.
According to these reports, based on an interview given by someone in Sun's German subsidiary that develops the software, the StarOffice version that runs on Sun's Solaris operating system will remain free.
The Solaris operating system, however, is designed to work on networked systems and workstations sold by Sun, with capabilities (and prices) far above those for home computer use.
"We are not making announcements about pricing at this point," said Russell Castronovo, a Sun spokesman, in an e-mail response to my questions. "This was someone in Germany speaking out of turn."
While Sun has often spoken about offering what are known as "site licenses" for large enterprises wishing to use the StarOffice program the fees help pay for program development and for technical support services one of the appeals of StarOffice has been that individual users could download and use the software for free.
For now, the current edition of StarOffice, version 5.2, is available gratis at www.sun.com/staroffice, but be warned: It will eventually be supplanted by 6.0 and, frankly, I was less than thrilled by several aspects of StarOffice 5.2.
However, version 6.0 holds more promise. Shorn of its e-mail, Web browsing and address-book programs, it more easily fits into situations where users might rely on other, better-supported e-mail and Internet clients such as Outlook Express (a freebie from Microsoft), Eudora Mail (free from Qualcomm) and Opera, a free (ad-supported) Web browser.
Templates in the StarOffice 6.0 version are a tad more "global" in design, as opposed to reflecting a solely European orientation. The program has several nice features, not the least being rather good file compatibility with word processing, spreadsheet and presentation graphics files created in equivalent Microsoft Office XP applications.
The advantage of a "free" full-featured version was obvious to many: students, retirees, homemakers, people on limited incomes could each get a rather classy piece of software for the cost of a download, or perhaps a bare-bones cost for a CD without manuals.
If Sun goes ahead with plans to retail this software, what was free could cost $40 a copy, which is what they charge for the "retail" version of StarOffice 5.2, or it could be more. While $40 is a fraction of what Microsoft Corp. charges for Office XP, it's still going to be a tough sell to some users.
And should Sun which recently announced that it was going to more aggressively support the Linux operating system on its hardware products decide to charge for the Linux version of StarOffice, it will find itself up against a user base largely unaccustomed to paying for desktop applications.
Moreover, these same Linux users will also face a diminishing number of free alternatives. Canada's Corel Corp. has pulled the plug on its version of WordPerfect for Linux. You might find an old copy somewhere, but forget about improvements or a new version.
Vistasource, a Massachusetts firm, has a $99 office applications suite for Linux. When I reviewed it a couple of years back, it made me long for a piece of slate and some chalk; I could work faster with those. I doubt Vistasource's product has improved substantially, and besides, there's no free version for Windows or Linux.
About the only hope for those seeking a robust but free word processor is a nice little program called AbiWord, offered by Abisource at www.abisource.com. It's similar in many ways to Microsoft Word, and there are Windows and Linux versions. Finding a free Microsoft-compatible spreadsheet or presentation program for Windows systems could be tougher, however.
But the real linchpin in all of the efforts to develop and distribute robust productivity applications for free could be Sun Microsystems. A firm with its resources would make a stunning impression in the market if it keeps StarOffice free for individual users. Otherwise, I believe it will be much more difficult to convince the world that high-quality free software, on Windows or Linux, is an idea whose time has come.

Write to: Mark Kellner c/o The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002. Send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page: www.kellner2000.com.
Talk to Mr. Kellner live on www.adrenalineradio.com every Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. EST.

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