Commentary: Can a Sun change its spots?

Last week I downloaded StarOffice for Linux for the first time.It's something I'd never thought I'd do, but a number of circumstanceshave both forced my hand and made the move much easier.

Last week I downloaded StarOffice for Linux for the first time. It's something I'd never thought I'd do, but a number of circumstances have both forced my hand and made the move much easier.

First off, finding a decent word processor for Linux has been more of a headache that I'd have wanted. Corel WordPerfect randomly crashed when I tried to edit Microsoft Word documents. Applixware Words didn't crash, but it refused to read the files at all -- and its import and other functionalities leave much to be desired. In fact, Applixware in general was roundly thrashed at the last meeting of my local user group. (A shame, too, because as far as I know, it was the first shot at a proprietary commercial application that uses the copylefted GTK library.)

My real preference would be an open sourced office productivity package -- not only because it would advance the cause of software freedom, but because such software could be turned into components that could be used or re-used all over the place. Rather than reinventing wheels, parts such as an address book or export filters could be easily shared by many different applications. Existing open source suites such KOffice and the GNOME Office project aren't quite there yet: the KWord and AbiWord components of the two respective suites are not quite ready for prime time. The Gnumeric spreadsheet, a part of GNOME Office which has been around longer than most others, has crashed for associates of mine while processing complex files.

Compounding the mess is the fact that WordPerfect Office for Linux is actually a bunch of Windows binaries running under Wine, which in some ways is a step backwards from earlier versions that were natively developed for Linux. And we can all start growing cobwebs waiting for Microsoft to make MS Office for Linux. In other words, the Linux office app field has been nowhere near what it oughta be.

Shining star
Then there was always StarOffice, the suite that Sun bought a few quarters ago and made freely downloadable (if not open source). It looked good enough, but I was wary of Sun's intentions. When it was first introduced, the licensing and distribution schemes for the free StarOffice were so convoluted that they simply cried out for conspiracy theories.

My own pet belief was that Sun was turning StarOffice into the front of a bait-and-switch routine, leading users into an ASP hell ruled by Sun's own server line. It was a reasonable scenario, but this theory came to a crashing end last week when Sun announced it would open source StarOffice. Indeed, Sun isn't just open sourcing it, but is putting the whole project under the genuine GNU Public License (GPL) -- as well as a home grown Sun alternative created for those who hate the GPL.

To me, such a turnaround is little short of astonishing -- not only for what it says about Sun, but for its potential effect on Linux desktops.

Why did Sun do it? "We were always planning to open source StarOffice," said Sun spokesperson Russell Castronovo. "We're doing it now because we want to be suitably close to the intended release date." While Castronovo wasn't certain of why the GPL was chosen, I believe the reasons are fairly clear.

The announcement of the opening of StarOffice includes quotes from a number of open source personalities on their endorsement of the move. I suspect that Sun was taken aback by the negative reaction that its original move had attracted -- too many Linux folks looked at the Sun Community Source License and, like me, mistrusted the company's motives.

In order to get widespread acceptance of StarOffice as the Microsoft Office alternative, Sun had to do something dramatic. Sun needs StarOffice to leapfrog WordPerfect (which, to me, is the big loser from the move) and to capture the desktops (if not the hearts and minds) of the majority of Linux users.

Open source tradeoffs
Well, Sun's move to put StarOffice under the GPL is certainly dramatic, and I think that it may well be enough to get Sun the recognition and popularity (within the Linux world) that it wants. What it gave up in the process was the future ability to commandeer the StarOffice agenda over the objections of its users. That power, given to users, is really what the heart and soul of open source software is all about.

So long as Sun holds true to its word and releases the complete code for StarOffice as promised October 13 -- not a non-functional gutted version such as what Netscape gave the Mozilla project -- free software fans will be able to download and use the suite with confidence. It may well become a standard part of even more distributions than it already is, since future distributors won't even have to ask Sun's permission to spread it around.

In the longer term the prospects are even better. Release 6 of StarOffice is already in the works and due out in six months. According to Castronovo, Sun is announcing the coming of Release 6 in order to make sure we get the idea that the company will continue to work on the software even once it's opened. Among other enhancements, the parts of StarOffice will be broken up so that you can run, say, the word processor alone without needing to run the entire suite.

Certain parts of StarOffice are significantly more advanced than any of their current open source counterparts, and open sourcing means the other projects are free to borrow Sun's code at will. All of the current word processors will immediately have access, for instance, to StarOffice's superior handling of Microsoft Word documents.

Furthermore, the stated intention to further segregate StarOffice into GNOME's component architecture can only strengthen and enhance the usability of existing GNOME apps. Developments like this suggest that the momentum among developers is swinging towards GNOME, which also has the work of Helix Code and Eazel behind it. But I wouldn't count out the KDE folks so quick, and I'm eagerly awaiting the release of KDE 2.0 in the early fall.

In any case, at least some KDE developers don't see much immediate effect of StarOffice on the popularity of KDE. "The balance between KDE and GNOME is determined by the developers and users we manage to attract," KDE developer Waldo Bastian told me. And I think Bastian was only half joking when adding a smiley to this: "We are all currently working very hard to make the first release of KOffice a success and when people have used that they don't want to go back to StarOffice any longer."

In all -- again -- it appears we shall have some interesting times ahead. It's still a bit of a shock to see Sun boldly quote on its web site, "If you love something, set it free..."

(I wonder how much Sun loves Java anymore?)

I'm still not yet totally convinced that Sun is one of the white hats -- it's still doing dumb things like trying to claim a patent on memory modules -- but this is a very good start. In the meantime, I've downloaded the 90-odd megs of the latest StarOffice release and look forward to learning its idiosyncrasies.

Will the open source release of StarOffice affect you? Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at