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Next Up: Google Office?

There's a Chinese proverb: May you live in interesting times. These times must be really interesting for Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft's CEO allegedly said he'd crush Google , his company's rival in search, and the lucrative ad business it engenders. On Tuesday, Google may strike back at Redmond's heart: Microsoft Office.

Google and Sun Microsystems will hold a press conference on Tuesday at which they're expected to announce a collaboration to bring StarOffice productivity applications to Google users.

StarOffice is Sun's suite of integrated word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and database software based on the OpenOffice open source project.

StarOffice or OpenOffice users can add their own browsers and e-mail applications, while Sun offers Sun Java Communications Suite for customers that want to add messaging, collaboration, calendaring and scheduling tools.

Google's dip into OpenOffice began with its hiring of Joerg Heilig, former director of software engineering at Sun, according to Gary Edwards, a consultant and designated representative of the OpenOffice.org open source community.

"He was the project manager for StarOffice, a longtime employee of the Star division, and a very important person to StarOffice," Edwards said. "When he left, there were some real tears. Also a great deal of apprehension."

Community scuttlebutt was that Google was on a hunt for OpenOffice and StarOffice developers, and everyone in the company's Hamburg division was a target, according to Edwards. "No one knows what Google was going to do with Joerg, but they had the keys to the kingdom when they got him," Edwards said.

It has long been rumored that Google is developing its own operating system or desktop, with an online calendaring application scheduled to be released in October.

The partnership with Sun seems to indicate that Google's direction is to build out what is, in essence, an alternative to Microsoft Office. Google already offers e-mail, photo managing and instant messaging applications.

Vendors of hosted business productivity tools didn't seem concerned about a threat from Google. Satish Dharmaraj, CEO of Zimbra, which last week delivered a beta version of an open source browser-based system for e-mail, calendar and contacts, said that Google's entry would validate Zimbra Collaboration Suite's strategy.

Via e-mail, Marc Benioff, CEO of hosted applications provider Salesforce.com said simply, "Google is a consumer services company."

But the ramifications go far beyond free, online apps for consumers, Edwards said, because StarOffice is far more than just an alternative to Microsoft Office. StarOffice -- or OpenOffice -- is based on standard XML, so it can act as the transformation layer between any application that can read the XML file format and legacy applications.

"If Google comes along and … provides some basic AJAX-based editing, and allows people to do this editing in XHTML and OpenDocument, you have a clear line of capability that goes from simple HTML to a little bit more complicated but data-centric XHTML to a truly bridging XML technology, OpenDocument," Edwards said.

OpenDocument is an OASIS standard for a single XML-based file format for text, spreadsheets, charts and graphical documents. It was ratified in May.

Google already offers Gmail users plenty of storage for their e-mail archives. If it extended that storage to other kinds of documents that were generated in conformance with the OpenDocument standard, and then combined that with a Web-based productivity suite to connect users to their stored information via any browser, the result would be a platform that could transform business collaboration as well as consumer communications.

"Imagine StarOffice running on the desktop, and Google perfecting the [file synchronization]," said Edwards. "Then you have your collaboration space carved out immediately for you, and Google is hosting it."