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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

Sun Microsystems Inc is in talks with some of the major internet service providers regarding possible tie-up agreements through which the ISPs will distribute and offer services around Sun's StarOffice productivity office software suite.

Sun's business manager for SunONE Desktop Solutions, Mru Patel said that Sun was in talks with "all the big ISPs" to try to decide if the market is ready for them to offer the StarOffice software stack as a browser-based service. If the plans do go ahead, Patel said, a supported service might cost around 30 pounds ($46.56) per user per month, or as little as 2 pounds ($3.10) per user per month, depending on the level of service and support required.

The negotiations are one of many initiatives from the Santa Clara, California-based company as it attempts to gain 10% of Microsoft Corp's Office market share by the end of 2004, according to Patel. The company is also in talks with some of the major retail chains to increase the availability of StarOffice, and is gearing up for the release of its Linux-based desktop. It will also relaunch its Sun Ray thin client device in January.

Patel is the man that persuaded Sun's management to start charging a price for StarOffice with the release of version 6.0 as his negotiations with the UK Government's Office of Government Commerce convinced him that by charging a competitive fee for StarOffice, rather than giving it away free, the company could persuade potential customers that it was a serious contender to Microsoft.

As such he has his finger on the pulse of Sun's desktop strategy and its acceptance among government and business customers. Patel said that there are a number of factors that are currently pushing government and business users towards StarOffice. The first, and most obvious of these is restricted budgets, said Patel, especially given Microsoft's recent licensing changes.

"Why spend the money when you're not getting the business benefit?" he said. "People are questioning this because money is tight. In this environment it would be foolish for people to ignore such a cost difference as one tenth or one twentieth of the cost, just on software."

While there are cost arguments involved in a change to StarOffice - enterprise licenses vary between $50 and $25 depending on the volume, compared to $479 for the standard edition of Microsoft's Office XP - Sun still faces a problem getting StarOffice delivered on a plate to potential end users. Hence the negotiations with ISPs, retail distributors and PC vendors.

"We're up against the might of Microsoft forcing them to do something they don't want to," said Patel of PC vendors who are reluctant to bundle StarOffice on Windows-based PCs. "We need the users to demand lower costs."

In the meantime, Sun will take StarOffice to market on its own desktop hardware, namely the "Madhatter" Linux desktop and Sun Ray thin clients. The Sun Ray stateless device will be relaunched in January with server-side support for Sun's desktop software stack - which includes StarOffice, Ximian Inc's Evolution messaging software, the Gnome desktop and the Mozilla browser. The same software stack will be offered on Sun's Linux desktop.

Rather than a fully-fledged PC, the Madhatter device will be built to fulfill the majority of most users' desktop requirements, Patel said. "Linux for the desktop is the best thing that could happen. The strategy is to attack from the idea that for most people's user requirements this will be an 80% to 90% fit," he said. "Why do you need a high-resolution graphics card, or a CD writer? If you really want them, just buy a PC."

Patel said Sun is still evaluating which PC manufacturers will produce the device, which he described as a "Lighter PC", and is still deciding how much local storage, if any, will be required for the device, which is due to go into beta in the first quarter of 2003.

Many in the industry will recognize the aims of Sun's Madhatter project and liken it to the ultimately failed network computer plans of Sun and Oracle Corp back in the mid-1990s. Patel said that the opportunities for the "Lighter PC", and the soon-to-be relaunched Sun Ray thin client, were now greater because there was a larger proliferation of browser-based applications and a more widespread adoption of server-based computing.

One of the things that the Linux desktop won't be able to do, of course, is run Microsoft applications. For that, users will need to deploy either Citrix Systems Inc or Tarantella Inc's server-based computing software. Indeed, server-based computing software is so important to Sun's vision of desktop computing that ComputerWire put it to the company that it could do far worse than acquire Tarantella and bring the technology in-house.

"It makes sense," admitted Patel, "but sometimes we pick up technologies to foster them and it sometimes slows them down, whereas smaller companies have more flexibility to change to a moving market. We are also working with Citrix and at this time we'll carry on working with the best of breed until something else comes out."

© ComputerWire

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