Why buy software if it's free online?

Some industry leaders push for 'on tap' distribution

Adding software to your next computer may cost a lot less -nothing to be exact.

If Microsoft archrival Sun Microsystems has anything to say, you may not buy any software at all.

The company plans to let consumers (and businesses) use its new suite of office software - including a word processor, spreadsheet, calendar, and e-mail -for free over the Internet.

The concept isn't new.

The so-called "network computer," or NC -a cheap, unsophisticated computer designed only to surf the Web and run Web-based software -flopped in 1996, says Matthew Nordan, a computer industry analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

The idea, touted back then by anti-Microsoft forces primarily at Sun and Oracle Corp., revolved around NCs that ran programs off the Internet, written in Sun's Java programming language, and run on any type of computer operating system, from Sun (Solaris), to Apple (Mac OS), to Windows.

But consumers didn't buy the NCs, fearing they would quickly become obsolete.

Sun's Aug. 31 announcement that it would give away its Star Office suite over the Web promises more success for the concept. Why?

*Sun's model no longer relies on cheap hardware for marketing appeal. Consumers can use full-fledged computers whose prices have now dropped to the range of NCs. Star Office will run on everything from ordinary PCs to Palm Pilots and digital cell phones.

*Star Office can access more types of files, especially Microsoft Word and Excel documents, "which have become the lingua franca of business" (and which the old NCs couldn't read), Mr. Nordan says.

*Most important, the timing is better given that more people have access to the Internet and become more Web-savvy. Broadband - Internet connections that are always on and can transmit large amounts of data quickly - has now spread to most major cities. "You don't want to go home on a dial-up connection every time you want to work on anything," Nordan says.

Many consumers have also gotten comfortable with using e-mail and calendar programs provided by online services such as America Online and Yahoo!. Sun sees more applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, and home-banking software as the next offerings.

While Star Office can be downloaded free now, "the right model is running the software off the Internet," says George Paolini, vice president of software marketing at Sun.

Sun's vision is to provide software "services" to Web portals such as AOL and Yahoo! for a fee. Those services, such as word processing and Web design, would be included in consumers' monthly bills for Internet service, says Mr. Paolini.

Users shouldn't have to worry about the complexity of buying, installing, and maintaining their own software, he says.

"You don't need to know how to run a nuclear power plant to get electricity or a ... dam to get water," Paolini says.

Sun's goal is to make using a computer as easy as using a telephone or television.

Computer departments in businesses are also pushing the re-named "thin client" model, because they could save thousands of hours and millions of dollars if they didn't have to maintain disparate software collections on every employee's PC. With software run over a network, program upgrades could be completed by changing just the server.

Workers and others who travel could access their files with almost any machine, no longer limited to a laptop that runs their software.

"The whole mobile-computing trend is driving the market" toward centralized software, says John Makulowich, a computer expert in North Potomac, Md. Adding features to run complex software adds weight and bogs down portability.

Critics such as Nordan still aren't convinced. Printing documents on the road is next to impossible and the programs will probably be harder to use, he says.

"Basically, Sun likes to lob big rocks at Microsoft in public as much as possible," he says.

Microsoft derives some 40 percent of its revenue from its $400 office software suite, which competes directly with Sun's free Star Office.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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