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In his scheme to earn a billion dollars, Matthew JC. Powell tries asking nicely . . .

I'm always open to hearing about new ways to make money. You know me, all brimming with entrepreneurial spirit and so forth. Someday I'll be able to buy and sell Bill Gates. Or, at least, pictures of him. Little dolls, perhaps? Fifteen bucks a piece, and you could buy little suits to put on him, and a little dream house for him to live in, and little pies . . .

Anyway, that sounds like a terrific idea, of course, but it's nowhere near as good as the idea Scott McNealy has come up with for Sun Microsystems. McNealy, you'll recall, has a bit of a thing about Microsoft and Bill Gates. Whether it's the indomitable market position or the bucketloads of money, or whatever, I'm not in a position to speculate. McNealy has spent an awful lot of his time and energy over the past few years trying to make the world see, as he sees, that it's no fun to be crushed under the mighty boots of Microsoft, and it'd be much more fun to be crushed under the mighty boots of Sun.

And he's not alone. Microsoft's dominance in almost every market in which it is a player has ruffled more than one bunch of feathers over the years, and numerous companies have embarked on McNealy-like quests to bring it down. Quixotic, doomed endeavours, all of them, as evidenced by the fact that Microsoft's mighty boots remain omnipresent.

Then along comes StarOffice, a productivity suite from an itsy-bitsy little company called Star Division. StarOffice is a feature-rich application suite, but not bloatware, that runs on a number of different operating systems including various flavours of Windows, OS/2 and Unix, including Linux and (importantly) Solaris. Without anything like a budget for marketing StarOffice, Star Division has made it a quiet competitor to Microsoft Office simply by giving it away on the Web, gratis.

(Note: this is different to au gratin. Without wanting to go too deeply into the rather messy details, suffice it to say that I have discovered that getting software gratis is highly desirable, while software au gratin is not. Lessons learned.)StarOffice has been available for several years now, and is in fact now up to version 5. It hasn't received overly much attention, mainly because the big players in Office software have been so vociferous. But the big players have been more quiet lately - Lotus as it licks its SmartSuite wounds, Microsoft as it ducks government scrutiny, Corel just because it's Canadian and Canadians are, you know, kinda laid-back.

Add to this the rise of Linux and, with it, a groundswell of support for the "anything but Microsoft" brigade, and StarOffice has suddenly been get-ting a lot of coverage. Coverage that culminated, a couple of weeks ago, with the announcement that StarDivision and its flagship product are to be acquired by Sun Microsystems. Not, I believe, gratis.

McNealy, you'll recall, has in the past taken objection to Gates' proclivity for giving software away gratis (as opposed to au gratin). He has described the free distribution of Internet Explorer as evil, criminal behaviour - monopolistic, anti-competitive, and not really all that nice. Darth Vader may have killed billions of Alderaanians by destroying their planet, but at least by golly by gosh by gum he didn't give them free Web browsers.

Anyway, McNealy clearly can't continue to give StarOffice away for nothing, or he'd risk being called a hypocrite (not by me, of course). Likewise, he can't make people pay for it, or a large chunk of the thing's appeal is lost. This is what we writer types call a "conundrum".

McNealy, being much smarter than we writer types, has come up with the perfect solution: you can pay for it, or not. On the product's Web site (http://www.sun.com/products/staroffice/ get.html) you're given the option either to download the software for the cost of the time it takes you, or to pay a paltry $US9.95 for a CD. This may not sound like much, but the CD wouldn't cost $US9.95, so there is a margin involved. As for shipping, you're given the option (unexplained, mind you) of paying either $US6.50 or $25. That's it, your choice: pay anything between nothing and $34.95, on a sliding scale.

I think it's brilliant. Naturally, people will value it more if they pay more for it. Companies will be able to account for it in their budgets if it costs something, but obviously can't if it's free. Something that costs twenty-five bucks just to ship, especially, must be good. McNealy really ought to offer an option where people can pay $US1300 if they want to - then it would really compete with Microsoft.

Anyway, that's my two cents worth. Or, if you'd prefer, send me twenty bucks.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au


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