Google Starts Distributing StarOffice, Now Free

Almost two years ago, Google and Sun Microsystems held a special event to announce a multi-year partnership in which each company would distribute the other's software. Industry analysts issued a collective yawn, and not much has been heard about the agreement since - until now.

Over the weekend, Google quietly added Sun's StarOffice productivity suite -- the software that became OpenOffice.org and is now based upon it -- to Google Pack. The free collection of applications for Windows now numbers 13, and features other programs such as Skype, RealPlayer, Adobe Reader and Spyware Doctor.

Typically, a new product being added to Google Pack wouldn't warrant much interest (especially since the first 12 were available for free previously), but StarOffice normally costs $70, and the move could be seen as a challenge to the dominance of Microsoft Office. It's also a sign that Google isn't interested in building or branding its own offline office suite, as was rumored back in 2005.

But the real news here isn't new competition for Microsoft; rather, a free StarOffice -- which includes licensed fonts and support -- will be of most impact to Corel's WordPerfect, which holds onto a small slice of the market, and OpenOffice.org itself. Indeed, Microsoft Watch editor Joe Wilcox notes that Google could have started distributing OpenOffice.org, but opted for its commercial counterpart instead.

"Where Microsoft wins is distribution of the commercial Sun software, rather than its open-source software. Open-source advocates should consider the Google-Sun deal as a foreboding occurrence," said Wilcox.

The real winner, however, seems to be the consumer, who will benefit most from this push toward free software and services. Microsoft has indicated it will soon release an ad-supported version of Microsoft Works, which is a slimmed-down version of Office. And Google continues to build upon its Docs & Spreadsheets offerings as part of its Web-based Google Apps.

Sun is expected to make an official announcement regarding the distribution deal Wednesday, at which time we could learn something new such as Dell agreeing to distribute StarOffice as part of its existing Google relationship. Google and Sun could also plan to link StarOffice up to the search company's Web services.

But if not, this could be nothing more than posturing from Sun to promote OpenDocument, and Google bulking up its offline application offering in order to get access to eyeballs on the desktop. If so, we can simply expect another yawn from analysts and industry watchers who know that consumers need more of a reason than that to dump Microsoft Office.

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