Sun and Google are gearing up to make what looks like it could be an historic announcement later today, with Google chairman and CEO Dr. Eric Schmidt and Sun CEO Scott McNealy to announce what they will so far only describe as a "collaborative effort".
The fact that they have picked the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California for the announcement suggests to us that this is going to be big. It’s also notable that despite huge industry speculation as to what might be announced, neither company has done anything to manage expectations to a lower level by leaking news of what might be announced – that again suggests something that genuinely is headline news.
So what could they be planning? Well as I wrote in my blog yesterday, rumours have persisted for some time now that Google plans to come out with a web-based office suite of applications to compete with Microsoft Office. As the 299 comments (and counting) on Slashdot – where my story was picked up yesterday – will attest, there are those for and against the idea of a web-based office suite. Concerns over performance, security, privacy, even the thought of potential adverts alongside your office documents, were all voiced.
But while it is true that all of these concerns would need to be addressed somehow, and that there will surely be people who shy away from using a web-based office suite in favour of more traditional software like Microsoft Office, Sun StarOffice and the like, there are others that would see a low cost or free web-based office suite as absolutely compelling.
However I don’t think Sun and Google will announce a web-based office suite later today – though that may come later. I believe they will offer an office-based web suite. I’ll explain what I mean, but think of it as an integration of Sun’s StarOffice office suite or OpenOffice with all of Google’s network services, without requiring a browser. Think ‘StarOffice Google’.
There were some pretty strong hints that this may be the news in Sun president and COO Jonathan Schwartz’s latest blog, in which he wrote about some big changes afoot in the software distribution space. Schwartz wrote: "The first thing the internet did was allow companies to bypass Microsoft’s legendary distribution power. From eBay to Google to opentable.com, the rise of industry standards allowed services to emerge on an open network platform… But the technology, frankly, was less valuable than the services themselves. I did say was."
He also said that: "Value is returning to the desktop applications, and not simply through Windows Vista. But in the form of applications that are network service platforms. From the obvious, to music sharing clients and development tools, there’s a resurgence of interest in resident software that executes on your desktop, yet connects to network services. Without a browser. Like Skype. Or QNext. Or Google Earth. And Java? OpenOffice and StarOffice?"
The fact he says "without a browser" seems to suggest that we are not just looking at a version of StarOffice hosted by Google, but some kind of integration of Google technology into StarOffice and/or OpenOffice that adds network services – like search, Google Maps, GMail and the like, without having to switch from StarOffice to your browser and back. Think of StarOffice as your new portal, in fact. It is the place where you create office documents, consume Google network services, and collaborate with your contacts. Welcome to Google StarOffice?
Of course, it’s still possible that Schwartz is throwing us off the scent deliberately, and that the announcement will be of a version of StarOffice hosted by Google. After all, StarOffice was designed initially to be able to run in a hosted manner. Some will remember that when the first versions were launched Sun even used to call it a thin client office suite. Sun had ambitions of its own in the hosted office applications space – go back to 1999 and Sun was showing off StarOffice Portal, a server-based version of StarOffice, later renamed WebTop, which ultimately fizzled out.
What Sun lacked back then was the traffic, brand equity and ambition to take on Microsoft with its web-based office suite, and besides, early versions of StarOffice were a shadow of what it is today. Google, if anyone, has the brand, the traffic, and the ambition to take on Microsoft Office. But while a fully hosted version of StarOffice may well be in the wings, given Schwartz’s comment about "without a browser" and "resident software that executes on your desktop, yet connects to network services", I think it will stay in the wings for the time being.
So my guess is StarOffice Google Edition, or at least news along those lines. I could be completely wrong. We won’t know for sure until after 6.30pm GMT today. I’ll keep you posted.