Sun Microsystems and Google are getting a lot of press after their announcement last week of a collaborative effort to promote Sun's open-source software. The announcement on October 4, 2005, unveiled an agreement in which Sun will include the Google Toolbar as an option in its consumer downloads of the Java Runtime Environment (JRE).
More significant to IT managers, however, is that Google has agreed to begin collaborating with Sun to develop and enhance some of Sun's programming technologies. This includes the JRE and the OpenOffice software suite.
StarOffice and OpenOffice
This announcement follows on the heels of Sun's release of Version 8 of its StarOffice on September 27, 2005. StarOffice is the commercially licensed, enterprise-level suite of office productivity tools that Sun has been developing through OpenOffice.org.
OpenOffice.org, an open-source project that Sun initiated last year, is engaged in the creation of a multiplatform and multilingual office suite that's compatible with all other major office suites. While individual users can download the basic suite of OpenOffice for free, licensed StarOffice Version 8 has Sun's add-on enhancements designed for the enterprise.
Chicken or Egg: Which Came First?
Sun was not the originator of StarOffice. This suite was developed by StarDivision, a software company based in Germany. In 1999, Sun bought StarDivision, and Version 5.2 of StarOffice was released under Sun's boilerplate in 2000.
In 2002, Sun released the C++ code for StarOffice to a newly initiated, Sun-sponsored open-source organization called OpenOffice.org. The mission of OpenOffice.org is to create, as a community, an international office suite that can run on all major platforms and provide access to all functionality and data through open-component-based APIs and an XML-based file format.
The OpenOffice suite thus began by numbering its release versions from 1.0 (based upon the StarOffice source code) while Sun continued to sell the commercially licensed version of OpenOffice as StarOffice by continuing the release numbering that it had already established. As a result, OpenOffice is now at Version 2 at the same time that StarOffice is at Version 8, even though they are both running the same underlying base code.
This versioning minutia is important because of a controversy that is currently running in the open-source community about OpenOffice Version 2.
OpenOffice Version 2 Controversy
Writing OpenOffice V2 with more Java has distinct advantages. First, it's a more transparent language for creating cross-platform applications than C++. Second, it's a faster development language than C++, with a lot better reusability of code.
However, the problem with OpenOffice Version 2, from an open-source perspective, is that it increasingly relies on the Sun Microsystems JRE. And while the source code and the application itself for OpenOffice may be free to non-commercial users, the JRE is not.
Sun's Proprietary Java Runtime
You may recall that several years ago Sun Microsystems began the process of submitting Java to the various standards organizations to be an open standard. It was doing this during the period that it was also in a legal battle with Microsoft because Microsoft was altering the JRE code that it was shipping with Internet Explorer. Sun seemed to be positioning itself as an open-standards hero within the public eye, battling a giant corporation that was turning the promise of Java into yet another proprietary Microsoft property. At least, that was the comic book version of the conflict.
However, as soon as Sun got a favorable court indictment against Microsoft, it almost immediately withdrew Java from consideration by the international standards organizations. Instead, Sun said that it would retain proprietary ownership of the JRE while it "explored the possibilities" of opening up the environment to the developer community.
In this light, the OpenOffice.org initiative might be seen as a shill for Sun's continued domination of the Java world. But from Sun's perspective, it merely represents its continued commitment to compete with Microsoft Windows within a new and promising realm of cross-platform application-enablement software. Sun wants that new realm to be the JRE.
Unfortunately, the conundrum for open-source developers is simply this: "How open is a piece of software that requires a proprietary runtime environment? Is it truly open, or will customers be later hit with rising licensing fees for the underlying code of the Java Runtime Environment?"
Making Sun Google
Google's entry into this Office intrigue truly raises the stakes against Microsoft. Microsoft has historically marketed its MS Office productivity suites with a simple statement: "You can't get all the office productivity and compatibility of Microsoft Office without the Microsoft Windows operating system."
The latest versions of OpenOffice and StarOffice software are really challenging that homogeneous Microsoft assertion, and now Google--fresh with cash from its successful IPO--can help. It can help by furthering the development of OpenOffice and the JRE. It can help by funding and by offering programming resources. In the end, it could be a win-win situation for both organizations.
ROI: Cost, Functionality, and Compatibility
For IT organizations with lots of MS Office users, Sun claims that the cost of licensing StarOffice is 75% less expensive than the cost of licensing Microsoft Office. Furthermore, if you consider that StarOffice will run on open-source Linux, Sun believes the cost differential further enhances the value of StarOffice.
Sun also believes it's starting to achieve a critical mass with the number of installations of its open-source product. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is reported to be considering the product as a cost-effective alternative to the rising license fees of Microsoft. In addition, the open-source environment is being heavily pushed as a high ROI solution within e-government IT infrastructures in China and Europe.
Consequently, as Microsoft continues to push forward with its plans to completely overhaul the Windows operating system in its next release--including its licensing prices--the offerings of open-source Linux combined with productivity tools like OpenOffice take on new luster. If OpenOffice and StarOffice prove to be truly compatible with the current versions of Microsoft Office, Microsoft will have to push harder to provide better, more productive features in its next release of the Office product. If it does not, corporations and customers won't want to ante up the increased licensing fees.
Now that's an office intrigue we'd all like to see.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online.