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StarOffice Giveaway Hits Europe, Africa

In its ongoing battle to put a dent in Microsoft's command of the market for word processing software, Sun Microsystems on Tuesday extended the ambitious StarOffice giveaway program in schools throughout Europe and South Africa.

Coming on the heels of similar giveaways of the StarOffice software to education ministries in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Sun is making a bold bid to cash in corporate customers unhappy with Microsoft's move to implement a new subscription-based software licensing policy.

The StarOffice software is being billed as an alternative to Microsoft Office retails for home users at $75.95, but it is free for educational institutions. Because it interoperates with other desktop suites, including MS Office, Sun is hoping to gain traction by engaging in a price war with the Redmond-based behemoth.

According to published reports, the latest giveaways are estimated in the range of $650 million and are expected to put StarOffice at the fingertips of more than 25 million new users in elementary schools and colleges internationally.

Sun did not say if the giveaway would extend to schools in the U.S but industry watchers believe it is a safe bet the company would make the move to extend StarOffice to a young audience at home. StarOffice runs on Linux, Solaris and Windows operating systems.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun, which specializes in network computing and generates the bulk of its revenues from the sale of UNIX-based servers, has styled StarOffice as a multi-platform office suite with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, Web-publishing and database applications that can work for both large corporate customers and domestic users.

It is not the first time a Microsoft competitor has moved swiftly to make hay in the word processing space. In August, Corel Corp. launched its own licensing arrangement to snag customers for its WordPerfect suite of applications, which provides Microsoft Office-comparable and -compatible applications.

Corel's new licensing agreement doesn't have volume commitments and, more importantly, doesn't require an annual fee to upgrade. Not surprisingly, Corel announced its program on the same day Microsoft's Software Assurance program launched.

Microsoft announced it would scrap the system of licensing agreements that consists of five different ways to buy upgrades in favor of a unified program that charges customers 25 percent of the license fee for server software and 29 percent for desktop software on an annual basis. It lets customers get guaranteed maintenance of their software, much like the system used for mainframes.

The move created a stir among customers, who view the new licensing plan as confusing and designed to wring more money out of them.