Opinion: Sun hopes to jumpstart an era of network applications

Sun Microsystem's purchase of tiny Star Division and its StarOffice suite of productivity applications (or "dot comming Office software," as they call it) is an interesting bid by the computer giant to establish its network computing model as the successor to Windows. Though Sun is quick to downplay any attempts at competing with Windows or the Microsoft Office productivity suite, it seems pretty clear that the company is doing just that.

"Sun is changing the rules in a fundamental way with a new business model--today a lot of productivity applications, e-mail, chat, calendar, and instant messaging are available for free download from the Internet," the Sun press release announcing the purchase reads. "So why not word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications as well? At Sun this is the question we asked and we have the answer. Sun is turning the industry on its ear by making StarOffice, a fully featured office productivity suite available--free."

Though an argument could be made that office productivity applications such as word processors are simply too big to be run over the Internet, I don’t think that's really the point: What Sun wants is for corporations to use this software over their internal, high-speed networks. This would, of course, also require some beefy hardware on the back-end to properly serve all of the network clients. And yes, you guessed it: this is exactly the kind of hardware that Sun makes.

The division between Sun's idea of computing and that evangelized by Bill Gates and Microsoft is obvious: Sun wants customers to buy high-end Sun servers, which is where that company makes all of its money. Microsoft, on the other hand, pushes the idea of powerful desktop systems, where it makes most of its money, served by medium-strength Windows NT/2000 servers, an area where the company is just beginning to establish itself. Though both companies are obviously playing to their strengths, one has to wonder which model is more valid.

It turns out, however, that both business models have a place in today's world of computing. One of the biggest support nightmares at large corporations are the employees that constantly fiddle with the settings on their PCs. Lightweight clients--be they Windows Terminals or the Java terminals that Sun wants to sell--solve this problem with built-in management tools and network troubleshooting that keep those pesky employees at bay. But at home, users want the beefiest multimedia machines that money can buy. And the amount of money that it takes to buy such a machine has decreased dramatically over the past few years. Home users just aren't going to settle for mindless Internet terminals when they can get the full package for only a few bucks more.

So though Sun is trying desperately to move into the client space and Microsoft is pushing higher and higher into the server space, it seems logical that both companies should simply stick with what they know: I don't know of anyone that's interested in buying the latest 3D game or CDROM encyclopedia from Sun, for example. And I wonder whether the largest corporations in the world are wise to bet their mission critical operations on the company that gave us Bob and the Office Assistant.


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