Sun Microsystems is to release the first public beta of the next version of StarOffice this week, boosting the level of competition in the market for desktop productivity software.
The beta version of StarOffice 6.1 will be available for download from Sun's website by the middle of this week and adds features designed to make it more appealing to large businesses, said Iyer Venkatesan, Sun's product line manager for StarOffice.
The final version of the product is expected to ship in September or October.
"The main focus with 6.1 is the enterprise. We made it ready for enterprise deployment," he said.
Sun will face some healthy competition. Corel said last week that it would ship the next version of its productivity suite, WordPerfect Office 11, in late April. And market leader Microsoft is widely expected to release the final public beta of Office 2003, an upgrade to its own desktop productivity suite, this week.
The StarOffice beta will be available for Sun Solaris, Linux and versions of Windows from Windows 98 onwards, Venkatesan said. Sun hoped to sign up about 50,000 users for the beta trial, and will screen them to ensure an even mix of platforms, languages and types of user are represented. About 10,000 users have already signed up for the test.
The main enhancements in 6.1 include management tools that make it easier for businesses to deploy and configure the suite across a large number of systems. Sun also made the product compatible with tools used by people with disabilities, such as screen magnifiers and text-to-speech engines, which is a requirement for products to be used by the US government.
The beta will be available this week in English, German, Spanish, Swedish, French and Italian - as well as in Japanese, Korean and simplified and traditional Chinese. With version 6.1 Sun included a handful of technologies that will allow it to begin translating the product into more "complex languages", such as Hebrew and Arabic.
Venkatesan acknowledged the level of competition posed by Microsoft but said StarOffice has several selling points. It is compatible with Microsoft Office file formats, its user interface is similar to that of Office, making it easy to learn, and Sun offers more flexible licensing terms than Microsoft. For example, users can purchase one licence for the product and then install it on up to five machines that they own, such as a desktop at work and a laptop at home.
StarOffice sells at retail for $75.95, and is available to enterprises from $60 per user for 25 seats, he said. The retail price for the professional edition of Office XP is $579.99, according to Microsoft's website, with discounts available for volume purchases.