Freed IV: StarOffice/OpenOffice.org

The biggest problem for Linux users and would-be Linux users throughout the nineties was the lack of proper office software. Actually, I don't think there was a good alternative for any Unix-type operating system. Scientists at universities would have written their articles "in code' with LaTeX or HTML using, for instance, Emacs, the venerable text editing software created by Richard Stallman. But even most scientists would probably have done what everyone else did: they used Windows together with either Microsoft or Corel office applications. The lack of an office program - and particularly the lack of word-processing software - was often a crucial hindrance to anyone wanting to move from Windows to Linux.

To rectify this, there were naturally some Open Source projects. AbiWord and Kword are popular word processing programs, while Gnumeric and Kspread replace the spreadsheet program Excel and KPresenter replaces PowerPoint. However, to replace the whole of Microsoft Office is not easy, and to be honest even today, in 2004, none of these projects are on a level where they could seriously challenge MS Office.

The problem is not that one couldn't write a text using these programs; it's that they don't do well enough in reading Microsoft Word documents. In an era when a lot of files are sent attached to e-mail, it's imperative that files generated by monopolistic Microsoft can be opened flawlessly. Because these file formats are not public standards, it's not all that easy to write a competitive program - in fact, it requires a lot of guesswork, trial and error.

Closed software was slightly better at overcoming the same problem. Applix was a popular package of office programs and it used to come with a lot of Linuxes. Corel's WordPerfect made its short Linux visit before Corel dropped out of the Linux experiment and left the WordPerfect users on Linux empty-handed.

StarOffice, from the German company StarDivision, was also very popular. This software's popularity was increased by it being free to private users. In addition to which, it could be run on both Linux and Windows. Even so, StarOffice has never been as popular as WordPerfect or Word, but it has nonetheless had a relatively long and distinguished history since its first versions were developed back in the days of DOS.

In August 1999, Sun announced that it had bought StarDivision and with it the StarOffice software. Sun also let it be known that it had plans to publish the StarOffice code under an Open Source licence. Because StarOffice was already a popular office software among Linux users, this news was greeted with jubilation.

Sun handled the Open Source release of StarOffice a lot better than Netscape and Borland did theirs. It took nearly a year before any code was actually published. During that time the code was cleaned up and some of the German documentation was translated into English, so that as many hackers as possible would be able to understand the open code. Some time was also spent on removing code that wasn't Sun's to open, i.e. where the copyright was owned by third parties and therefore couldn't be published under an Open Source licence. In the end, the code was released in July 2000. In October the OpenOffice.org website followed, becoming the home of the hacker community developing the code as well as the name of the Open Source version of the software.1

StarOffice was no dream gift for the hacker community - in quality, it was comparable to InterBase and Netscape. One of the most immediately visible quirks was that in StarOffice all the programs, from word processing and spreadsheets to its e-mail program and browser, were one and the same program. And in order to make the program look the same on all operating systems, whether for use on a Linux or a Windows machine, there was a user interface that replaced the real operating system, from the Start button to file management. The idea must have been to ease the difficulties arising from the differences between the operating systems, but for most people the result was pretty much the opposite. StarOffice seemed equally weird to both Windows and Linux users.

So to begin with, OpenOffice was also mainly a clean-up project. The cleaners chose to get rid of the browser and e-mail program altogether because there were better Open Source alternatives. The single chunk of office software was chopped up into separate programs for word processing, spreadsheets, and so on. Sun's careful preparation and commitment to the project together with the enormous interest in the "missing link' of Open Source applications helped the clean-up crew over the first hurdles. Only a year after the OpenOffice.org project was founded they were able to release the Build 638c version, which was a relatively stable and usable test version of the new open office software. OpenOffice 1.0 was published on May Day 2002. By then, more than six million copies of trial versions like Build 638c had been downloaded from the website.

For a long time now, Linux has been a good choice for a server operating system, but in the nineties it had yet to become a serious contender for desktop computing. OpenOffice has changed all that. Even before the final 1.0 version many cities and nation states started finding out how it might be possible to switch to Linux and OpenOffice in their offices. Many German cities, Munich was the first of them, have made this decision. In the corporate world Novell, for one, has found that as the largest Linux company, it actually has a responsibility to show the way, so it too intends to give up using Microsoft software as soon as possible.

The move away from the Microsoft monopoly to the open world is eased by both Mozilla and OpenOffice being compatible with Windows, which eases the changeover. First, while still running a computer on Windows, one starts using the open software browser, e-mail, word processing and spreadsheets.2 After this it's time to start switching from Windows to Linux, and users hardly notice the difference as they continue to use the same software programs. Novell, for instance, will make the changeover in this way. You too can take the first step towards more open data processing right now. And installing Mozilla and OpenOffice on your computer won't even cost anything!

The advent of OpenOffice was a key step forwards in enabling the use of Linux on desktop computers, but there remains the question: what did Sun get out of all of this? Was the purchase of StarDivision only charity, or was it more about buying a stick to poke at Sun's archenemy, Microsoft?

It wasn't charity, but Sun's relationship to Microsoft may have played a part. Sun's relationship with Linux has been difficult. Linux is strong competition for Solaris, Sun's own operating system, and keeps gobbling up ever larger slices of the Solaris market. Which is why Sun has seen Linux as a threat, and some of the craziest things CEO Scott McNealy has said about Linux can actually hold a flag to Bill Gates' infamous statement about Linux being a Communist and anti-American system.

In desktop software, the opposite is the case, because in that area Linux and Solaris are both underdog competitors to Microsoft. The desktop software for Solaris is mostly copied from Linux GNOME, but it was still short of an office software bundle. Sun donated StarOffice to the Open Source movement, because it was obvious that the open development model was their only chance of challenging Microsoft.

I don't know if Sun's attitude of "your worst enemy is also your best ally' is a sign of schizophrenia or if it's just post-modern, but in any case OpenOffice has been a success - also from Sun's point of view. Sun has sold its own StarOffice version in the millions - although most were sold very cheap, for instance to universities. At the end of 2003 Sun came out with a news bombshell; it had made a deal with the People's Republic of China to sell up to 200 million Linuxes for desktop use at $50 a pop. The existence of OpenOffice, along with Mozilla and many other Linux desktop programs, were a requirement for a deal like this and they are of course included in the package. After the deal with China the company has done a lot more Linux business around the world with, for instance, demand rising for Sun Linux desktops in the UK.

Verdict: OpenOffice is arguably the most successful and definitely most important project in which a closed old program has been released under an Open Source licence. The release of OpenOffice 1.0 removed the last barrier for far-reaching Linux planning in companies and the public services. Furthermore, it seems that the OpenOffice venture will prove to be a financially successful investment for Sun.

  • 1. Sun still also sells an office program under the name of StarOffice. It is nearly identical to OpenOffice, but also includes some non-open extensions, such as fonts and an Access-type database program.
    The official name of OpenOffice is "OpenOffice.org' (OOo, for short), because plain "OpenOffice' was already a registered trademark. Unofficially, the name used is practically without exception OpenOffice.
  • 2. Mozilla also has an e-mail program. There are many other e-mail programs for Linux, and Mozilla is not the most popular of them but it is the only one that will run on both Windows and Linux.
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