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29 January 2009, 07:59

Healthcheck: OpenOffice - The Fun Has Gone?

Richard Hillesley

The purchase of StarDivision, the makers of StarOffice, a German office "productivity suite", by Sun Microsystems in August 1999. The subsequent release to the free software community of the StarOffice code, in the shape of OpenOffice, came as a surprise to many. Sun was a hardware company. Its primary business was back room servers, and Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystem's CEO, was not a fan of office productivity suites. Quite the opposite. Back in October 1996, McNealy had announced to the National Press Club of Australia: "When the anthropologists look back on the 1980s and 1990s and do the archaeological digs, and get their calipers and brooms and microscopes out, they will blame the massive reduction in productivity during the 1980s and 1990s entirely on Microsoft Office."

PowerPoint corrupts absolutely

In August 1997 McNealy famously declared to the San Jose Mercury: "We had 12.9 gigabytes of PowerPoint slides on our network. And I thought, 'What a huge waste of corporate productivity'. So we banned it. And we've had three unbelievable record-breaking fiscal quarters since. Now I would argue that every company in the world, if it would just ban PowerPoint, would see its earnings skyrocket. Employees would stand around going: 'What do I do? Guess I've got to go to work'."

An office productivity suite was not the most obvious purchase for Sun Microsystems, and many commentators assumed that the acquisition of StarDivision was a stab at Microsoft and an attempt to undermine Office, Microsoft's primary source of revenue. A more generous interpretation assumes that Sun's sponsorship of Java, the GNOME desktop, the Mozilla Foundation, and is part of a longer term strategy to push UNIX and Linux based thin clients into the data centre, manifesting Sun's long held mantra that "The Network is the Computer."

Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open source officer, gives a more interesting explanation. "The number one reason why Sun bought StarDivision in 1999," he told LugRadio, "was because, at the time, Sun had something approaching forty-two thousand employees. Pretty much every one of them had to have both a Unix workstation and a Windows laptop. And it was cheaper to go buy a company that could make a Solaris and Linux desktop productivity suite, than it was to buy forty-two thousand licenses from Microsoft."

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