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As the tenth anniversary of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice acquisition approaches it grows increasingly difficult to fathom what Sun intends for its suite.

Sun this week released a minor upgrade based on the latest iteration of OpenOffice - version 2.3 and unveiled a bunch of plug-in extensions that appear useful enough. One enables StarOffice to be used to prepare blogs, one turns your PC into a fax machine and another compresses ludicrously large presentation files (including Microsoft's Powerpoint format).

The company also introduced a back-office server for bulk conversion documents into PDF format with a price tag of $11,000 for a base licence.

But at the same time Sun announced a "back-line" support deal for OpenOffice, the free, open source equivalent to StarOffice. For a paltry sum of $20 per user each year Sun will provide 24x7 telephone and email support. Sun said the target market for this package is not consumers but distributors and OEMs, and it will offer a discount according to volume.

It should be noted, StarOffice users - who pay around $70 for the package - receive their support not from Sun but from a third party.

While Sun clearly has a future planned for StarOffice it is hard to know why, given that it admits that it is quite happy for everyone to download OpenOffice for free.

StarOffice was acquired in 1998 and keenly touted as a rival to Microsoft Office. Since then, Sun has tried a number of strategies to make it competitive. The most successful was to release the source code and spawn the OpenOffice, open source project. While it still has some way to go to get close to Microsoft's dominance, OpenOffice attracts as many as a million downloads a week.

There are some minor differences between OpenOffice and StarOffice - such as some extra fonts and a clip art library - but they are fast disappearing. The StarOffice code is based on OpenOffice and the new extensions - that are either free or very cheap - work equally well with OpenOffice.

Sun derives no profit from its StarOffice revenues, which it donates to charity, while this summer it signed a deal with Google to include StarOffice free in its Google pack offering. Also pushing OpenOffice is Ulteo, with an OpenOffice, software-as-a-service option.

All of which begs the questions: what is the point of StarOffice, where will it be in another 10 years, and who's going to pay Sun to support it?®

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