Is a Web-based office suite on the way?

A one-two punch of open source and on-demand from Google and Sun could knock out Microsoft Office

The Google/Sun press conference on Oct. 3, which announced a deal to jointly “promote and distribute software technologies,” is generating a great deal of speculation.

Sun’s press release described the deal as an agreement to include the Google toolbar in downloads of the Sun JRE (Java Runtime Environment), which accounts for about 20 million downloads per month. In addition, the release said, the deal would “make it easier for users to freely obtain” the office productivity suite.

Every guru, pundit, and know-it-all, including me, has an opinion about what this means for the future of software, Google, Microsoft, and the enterprise. And a lot of them, me included once again, believe that “making it easier to obtain” is code for on-demand -- or software as a service.

Assuming all of us gurus are right, the next obvious question is: Will the enterprise care? And there’s an even bigger question. If is offered on demand, will the combination of open source and software as a service commoditize general-purpose applications, thus disintermediating Redmond and its cash cow, Microsoft Office? I turned to a number of industry folks for answers.

Michael Prince, CIO of Burlington Coat Factory, was happy to opine on whether StarOffice, Sun’s commercial version of the suite, was enterprise-ready. His company is a retailer with 350 stores and $3 billion in revenue. In 2001, Prince deployed StarOffice in all 350 of the company’s stores, with about six full-time users per store. Prince calls StarOffice “a hell of a product,”

describing it as full-featured and having a lot of unique functionality. For example, he says, you can create a PDF file in StarOffice, something you won’t be able to do with Microsoft Office until Version 12.

Burlington Coat Factory has saved anywhere from 300 percent to 500 percent by using StarOffice instead of Microsoft Office, Prince says, and so far it has worked flawlessly, including reading macros from Excel, PowerPoint, and Word documents.

“There has been no significant trade-off,” Prince tells me. And besides, he says, with Office 12 coming up, users would have to learn a new interface anyway -- so why not deploy StarOffice?

Okay, so one example does not mean the Fortune 500 is going to dump Microsoft Office. But Michael Dortch, principal analyst at Robert Frances Group, says it doesn’t work that way, anyway.

Dortch cites the oft-quoted Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun Microsystems, who asks attendees at conferences to raise their hands if they use Google search. Everyone’s hand goes up. Then, Dortch says, Schwartz asks how many of those who raised their hands were directed to use Google by their employer. Everyone’s hand goes down.

“It’s manifest destiny,” Dortch says. He believes that a good application will find an audience, and it doesn’t really matter whether the application has been anointed by the enterprise.

The idea that if you can access the Web you can access your application, a la on-demand services, has tremendous appeal. A lot of people think they want applications, but what they really want is accessibility. As the Web makes applications more accessible, or StarOffice may not replace Microsoft Office, but they will slow its growth.

Look for more products like to proliferate through the Web and become key adjuncts to general-purpose proprietary software.