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Microsoft Office faces desktop applications challenge from Google, Sun

Microsoft Office could have a viable desktop application alternative thanks to Google and Sun's partnership to distribute StarOffice for free.

Microsoft Office won't lose its dominance in the desktop applications market any time soon, but Google Inc.'s new partnership with Sun Microsystems Inc. could give users a viable alternative, according to experts.

Last week, Google began making Sun's desktop applications suite, StarOffice, available for free through its Google Pack downloads. Like Microsoft Office, StarOffice desktop applications include word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. Through integration with Google Docs, StarOffice can also now offer some of the same collaborative tools as Microsoft SharePoint.

"If you're a Microsoft partner, of course you're going to be concerned -- especially because Google is giving this away," said Bernard Golden, CEO of professional services firm Navica in San Ramon, Calif. "How do you compete with free?"

There are a few answers to that question.

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Stephen O'Grady, cofounder of Red Monk Consultancy in Denver, said Microsoft Office's biggest advantage is its robustness. Although 95% of users would be fine with StarOffice, it's "not as polished an interface," and StarOffice's spreadsheet does not offer the performance that high-end users need, he said.

Golden also said the collaboration afforded by StarOffice and Google Docs is not as advanced as in Microsoft SharePoint, which offers workflow management and other features StarOffice does not.

Another advantage of Microsoft Office is that it comes preinstalled on so many PCs. As a result, users need real motivation to switch to a different office desktop applications suite.

And, beyond the purchase price, StarOffice doesn't offer many reasons to switch, O'Grady said. But, he added, "If they're predisposed to go away from Microsoft Office, this would provide additional incentive."

Still, O'Grady and other experts do see an audience for StarOffice.

So does Paul DeGroot, an analyst for Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., who said emerging international markets, where not as many PCs come with Microsoft Office preinstalled, could be growth markets for StarOffice or the open source OpenOffice.

"They may be more willing to consider alternatives, especially if they can save a lot of money," he said.

The fact that StarOffice now has the backing of Google will also make a difference, he added, because as of now, "A lot of people don't know that it exists."

Golden agreed that Google makes StarOffice a more formidable competitor because, he said, "It's pretty clear that they are the closest to Microsoft in terms of size and momentum in the market."

"Google is in a financial position where they can put some muscle behind it," Golden said. "There's finally someone in Microsoft's weight class."

Another opportunity for StarOffice to challenge Microsoft Office's dominance is in the file-format battle between the Open Document Format (ODF) and Office Open Extended Markup Language (OOXML), which Microsoft Office uses. If Google can spread the use of ODF and force Microsoft to focus more on ODF, it would represent a shift in power in the office desktop applications market, Golden said.

In the meantime, Google isn't likely to make much of a dent in Microsoft's dominant market position, O'Grady said. But the StarOffice partnership with Sun should continue Google's trend of bringing consumer products such as Skype and Gmail into the enterprise, he said.

"Eventually I think Microsoft and even folks like IBM and others are going to wake up one day and wonder how Google co-opted a volume market," he said. "Google is sort of sneaking up on people."

Microsoft declined to comment for this story, but did release a statement saying, "Microsoft Office has tremendous potential as a platform for unified communications and collaboration, enterprise search, enterprise content management, workflow, compliance and business intelligence solutions. These programs will help our valued partners capitalize on many new areas of business opportunity."

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