COMDEX: Let StarOffice be free

COMDEX: Let StarOffice be free


Let StarOffice be free

The most arresting Comdex-related billboards in Vegas last week would have to have been: `Let software be free' and `Scott McNealy doesn't want your money'. Both billboards were advertising Sun CEO McNealy's keynote speech at the show and his emphasis on the free software movement through Sun's office productivity suite StarOffice and its upcoming StarPortal software. Sun acquired the company behind both products at the end of August when the vendor bought German-based StarDivision for $US73.5 million. IDG met with Marco Boerries, StarDivision's founder and now Sun's vice president and general manager of Webtop and application softwareIDG: How did StarDivision originate and where did the company's name come from?

Boerries: I started StarDivision when I was 16. I dropped out of high school and, for me, Star Division was not about a division of another company, but being the star division of the software world. In 1984, the year before I started StarDivision, I was an exchange student at a Palo Alto high school and I was infected with the idea of starting a software company. It was clear to me that the 80 per cent application everyone was using was word processing. Our first (DOS-based) product had pull-down menus, mouse support and graphics support on the PC.

How does the acquisition of StarDivision benefit Sun?

Sun has had StarOffice for the last two-and-a-half months and it fills a major gap in our dot-com software architecture. Contrary to what people might think, the move is not to make Microsoft unhappy. It's good for Sun because it makes its money selling servers and storage.

Look at what happened to Sun stock. The first four weeks after the (StarDivision purchase) on August 31 in New York, Sun's market value expanded by $US10 billion or more. The reason that happened is not because Wall Street likes free (software) so much, but that Sun leads in the Net server business.

How will you be positioning StarPortal?

StarPortal is the server version of StarOffice and manages all different data resources from any device. You can access StarPortal from a browser via a PalmPilot, a Windows CE device, a cell phone, etc.

StarPortal is completely different from Microsoft's Office Online (ann-ounced last week). They're using a fat client desktop on the server and third-party technology to put it out to the market; instead of a corporate network, they're now using DSL (digital subscriber line). It won't run on a cell phone, a Palm Pilot or even a Windows CE machine. It's like Henry Ford used to say, `You can have any colour as long as it's black.' Microsoft is saying, `You can access Microsoft Office from any machine as long as it's a PC.'

Will you carry on making StarOffice once StarPortal takes off?

We will continue to invest and make StarOffice available on Windows, Linux and Solaris. We will also make it available on the Mac. Our server version will not only be for Solaris, but also Linux and NT.

StarOffice is our bridge to take people from the old PC world to the new Net world. We've been using the `embrace and extend' strategy very successfully over in StarOffice for 15 years as a way to help users get over the bridge.

Some industry observers are saying that it's more accurate to compare StarOffice with the cut-down version of Microsoft Office, MS Works, not the full-blown version of Office. Is that an accurate take?

That's pathetic. StarOffice is a fully featured product and is fully competitive to Office 2000. Microsoft is plugging the perception that StarOffice is not fully featured. How in the world can a small German company develop a fully featured office suite that could compete with MS Office, Microsoft asks, and people say, `Oh, Microsoft must be right.' It's not true.

How about compatibility between StarOffice and MS Office? There have been suggestions that StarOffice doesn't support VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) and COM. If true, is that a problem?

It's very seamless to switch. There might be some retraining, but I believe the retraining costs of moving users from Office 97 to StarOffice is less than or equal to the training costs of going Office 97 to Office 2000.

From the very first, we said we won't support Microsoft Office macros which are VBA because, one, it's not secure - I'll just mention Melissa - two, you can only access the Microsoft API (application programming interface) from either Visual Basic or COM components.

You can create StarOffice APIs that will expose StarOffice, which is, speaking functionally, completely language-independent, you can use Java, C++ and you can indeed use COM, Visual Basic or even VBA.

You can use them to access the StarOffice APIs.

Besides the security problems, Microsoft Word and Excel macros will never ever run on cell phones: the architecture is just plain wrong.

In three to five years, there will be 1 billion devices connecting users to the Web - not just PCs, but cell phones, set-top boxes, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and information appliances. Applications need to be server-ready, portal-ready and Web-ready.

What would have happened if Sun hadn't bought StarDivision?

We would've just been going public. StarPortal (and the latest version) of StarOffice were already on their way at StarDivision before the Sun acquisition. The reason I chose not to go public and to go with Sun instead was all about timing and having the right business model.

How many StarOffice users were there prior to the Sun acquisition and how many users do you think you'll be netting in the near future?

We had about 4 million StarOffice users before the Sun purchase. Now, we've had 1.1 million downloads of StarOffice from the Web in less than two months and we've distributed 1 million more copies via CD-ROM. We distributed hundreds of thousands at last week's show and bundled 2 million copies with magazines. People will be switching to StarOffice in the tens of millions in a very short period of time.

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