April 27, 2004

Sun-Microsoft deal: Questionable significance for OpenOffice.org

Author: Paul Cesarini

In October 2001, Microsoft invested $135 million in Corel, maker of WordPerfect and the corresponding suite of office productivity applications for Windows, Linux, and, at the time, Mac OS. Corel also had its own Linux distribution, of course, and had been ailing for several quarters due to a largely unfocused product line.

In January 2001, Corel announced its intentions to spin off its various Linux products and not work on broadening its WordPerfect customer base beyond its existing audience. Now Microsoft has reached an agreement with Sun, settling their $4 billion lawsuit for $1.6 billion. Since Microsoft's total payment to Sun will come to well over 10 times the amount it paid to Corel, I wondered what impact if any this might have on OpenOffice.org? I asked Dr. Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager for OpenOffice.org and Chair of the Community Council, what the possible repercussions might be for the popular open source office suite.

OpenOffice 2.0 to be significant upgrade

In terms of the Sun-Microsoft agreement leading to increased interoperability between products developed by the respective companies, as recently asserted by Sun CTO John Fowler, Suarez-Potts is not certain how or in what way the agreement might impact OpenOffice.org. He said that interoperability between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office is already quite high -- apparently over 90 percent -- and the upcoming 2.0 release of OpenOffice.org (created independently of any Sun-Microsoft agreement) should only increase this trend. Suarez-Potts also added that interoperability is typically an uphill battle.

"Do I envision that [Microsoft] has made it easier for derived products such as StarOffice to compete with Microsoft Office? Of course not. More likely the agreement refers to fundamental technology ... for instance, it may refer only to Java. My impression is that the agreement will allow Sun to focus more on software development, including OpenOffice.org, as that is a growing market," he said.

Suarez-Potts also added that he expects to learn more about the specifics of the Sun-Microsoft agreement shortly. His take on whether this agreement could eventually lead to a situation similar to that of Corel was telling; he believes the future of OpenOffice.org would likely not be contingent on any deal made between Sun and Microsoft but rather on the market itself.

"I tend to believe the decision will rest more on whether Sun can in fact make money off its significant investment (OpenOffice.org). If it becomes apparent it cannot, then naturally one can connect dots. But given the awesome dissemination of OpenOffice.org, I am optimistic that Sun will more than recoup its investment," he said.

More strength in the market than WordPerfect

"The fact of the matter is that Linux is growing geometrically, if not faster, and it is growing on the desktop, too -- even faster there, I'd imagine. [OpenOffice.org] is the best application for Linux on the desktop, for it saves nearly perfectly to [Microsoft] Office (as well as working natively on every major platform). What I mean to say is that we are in a different position -- a far stronger position -- than Corel's WordPerfect. Microsoft, further, cannot kill Linux by attempting to repeat history by eliminating Linux's desktop key (us). Being open source makes a crucial difference, too: OpenOffice.org is far more than Sun. It is also the 141,000 registered members, including Novell, RedHat, and other corporate contributors."

I also asked Suarez-Potts about the recent 1.1.1 update to OpenOffice.org. He said the update represents both a bug fix and a "significant improvement." While 1.1.1 offers no new features, it includes "six months' worth of enhancements and tests, making the application much more robust and faster for all platforms." He added that the improvements made in this release will pale in comparison when the 2.0 release is eventually made available. The most immediate benefits to the 2.0 release will include:

  • Greater compatibility with Microsoft Office
  • Better integration into Gnome and Microsoft Widows (this has nothing to do with the recent settlement and everything to do with the realization that most people still use Windows)
  • Faster load times and leaner memory use, due to cleaner and more modular code

While new features have not yet been defined for the 2.0 release, additional information is available from the Openoffice.org site.

Will the truce between Sun and Microsoft have any impact on this pending version? Probably not. Yet, Suarez-Potts did add that since he was not an employee of Sun, his views on these events were his own, were not based on any specific information provided by the partnership between OpenOffice.org and Sun, and as such "could be egregiously wrong." Time will tell one way or the other.

Dr. Paul Cesarini is an assistant professor in the Advanced Technological Education program at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. His current research and work focuses on digital rights management and digital asset management, and the slow but steady erosion of fair use in higher education and at home.

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