In 1999, Sun took over German company StarDivision, whose StarOffice software had built up a base of around four million Unix and Windows users since the late 1980s.
Sun open-sourced the code in 1990, launching the OpenOffice.org project with the aim of creating a community-based, international office suite, able to run on all major platforms and access all functionality and data using open application programming interfaces and XML.
Sun's motivation was also to undermine Microsoft Office, which eight years on is still the choice of more than 95% of the world's users, most of whom have never considered the alternatives.
Sun remains the primary sponsor and code contributor to OpenOffice.org, regularly freezing the code, enhancing it, and releasing it as StarOffice (currently at version 8). Other major contributors are Novell, Google, Chinese company RedFlag, and IBM, which recently revived the 1980s office software brand Lotus Symphony, based on OpenOffice.org code, and integrated it with Lotus Notes.
Sun charges a modest licence fee for StarOffice, but OpenOffice.org is free to download, copy and distribute. It offers equivalents to most of the major components of Microsoft Office: Writer (Word), Calc (Excel), Impress (Powerpoint) and Base (Access), plus a vector graphics editor, Draw (Visio). There is a growing suite of extension packages, some of which plug functionality gaps between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org. Sun has contributed several extensions, including a document template pack, report generator and "presentation minimiser", which can be used to compress Powerpoint and Impress slides.
Support for Microsoft file formats
OpenOffice.org claims to support most Microsoft file formats, including Office Open XML, and some legacy formats which recent versions of Microsoft Office no longer handle. OpenOffice.org led the development of the ISO standard ODF (Open Document Format), which Microsoft has pledged to support in Office 2007.
"From an enterprise point of view, the show moved on years ago from document formats to the services added behind Office, like Sharepoint," says Laurent Lachal, open source research director at analyst firm Ovum. "Formats are more of an issue for the consumer market. If you save in ODF and send the document to someone with Office 2003, they are not going to be able to open it."
Lachal adds that a major OpenOffice.org shortcoming is the lack of an Outlook equivalent - a gap that should be filled with the addition of the Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail and news client and Lightning calendaring in the forthcoming OpenOffice.org version 3.
Tony Leggatt, IT manager at conservation organisation BirdLife International, says formats are an issue among the BirdLife partnership, which includes 112 national conservation organisations around the world, all autonomous, and many lacking the resources to upgrade their IT infrastructures to current versions. He is also concerned about the training implications within a large, dispersed organisation.
But Lachal points out that the move to Microsoft Office 2007 involves substantial retraining too, even though most people will not be doing anything they were not already doing with Office 2003.
Microsoft's own promotional material makes the transition sound daunting: "Information workers can easily determine which products are best for their needs and find related productivity resources - whether it is assistance from one of the nearly 50,000 new help articles, a how-to refresher through one of the 35 new demos, online training through any of the 24 new courses, downloading one of the more than 400 new templates"
Will users save money by moving to OpenOffice.org? Leggatt says not - as a charity, his organisation gets a concessionary rate from Microsoft, and the organisation's in-house and outsourced expertise is primarily with Microsoft technologies, reducing the time spent on support calls.
However, for enterprises Lachal says there are definitely cost savings. "The key strength of both OpenOffice and Google Apps is cost." And while the key weakness of Google Apps is functionality, he says OpenOffice is maturing nicely.
The UK is trailing other parts of Europe (not to mention Asia) in its takeup of OpenOffice, despite pioneering implementations like Bristol City Council and online travel agent Travel Republic.
A search for OpenOffice on the European Commission's e-government interoperability website provides public sector case studies continent-wide, from Ogre in Latvia to Zaragoza in Spain. The French are steaming ahead at both regional and national government level the gendarmerie moved to OpenOffice.org several years ago, as part of a move to open source which is said to be saving €7m a year. ODF is a government standard in many European countries, and the European Commission is said to be looking sceptically at Microsoft's promise to support it.
Ironically, by striving to overcome the inertia and the sense of devil-you-know security that keeps most users with Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org may be fighting last year's battle. In fact, too close an identification with Microsoft Office means OpenOffice.org risks becoming associated with an obsolete IT model, as attention moves to online applications and "the cloud", where deployment and version compatibility problems are a thing of the past - as long as your connection holds and your browser behaves itself. This would be unfair to OpenOffice.org, which is already available online as part of the Ulteo Virtual Desktop. Other major OpenOffice.org suppliers will follow as they square up to the challenge of Google Apps.