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Piecing Together The Sun Google Puzzle

Amid feverish speculation, on Oct 4, Google and Sun Microsystems (Quote, Chart) announced they would work together to promote the Java Runtime Environment (JRE), the Google Toolbar and the productivity suite.

Despite some of the yawns the deal inspired, it carries the hallmarks of something big, maybe not exactly Google Office or a Google-hosted version of OpenOffice, the open source desktop productivity suite. But something that pushes the concept of providing Office-like productivity tools online even farther.

There are at least three good reasons why we can expect this alliance to produce something with the features and functions of OpenOffice:

It’s the Way of All Software

Software-as-a-service, also called software on-demand or SAS, has taken off in the past few years, with Web-native enterprise applications including (Quote, Chart), RightNow and Mitrix being joined by offerings from on-premise vendors including Siebel (Quote, Chart) and even Microsoft (Quote, Chart).

Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady is a recent convert to the notion. “We’ve seen a very clear trend that indicated that software-as-service is an increasingly capable technology that can deliver things that we would not have expected. If that trend continues, we’ll see more software as a service.” Traditional installed software won’t go away soon, but O’Grady said that in certain cases, SAS will supplant it.

In an October 7 research note, Gartner analyst Tom Austin wrote, “Before year-end 2006, at least two vendors (such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft) will offer lightweight, office-like Web-based tools that will eventually undermine usage of heavyweight office suites like Microsoft Office.”

AJAX, the development strategy using asynchronous JavaScript and XML to create Web-based services that work like desktop applications, is powering a new wave of SAS products, including Writely, a word processing service and JotSpot, a set of collaboration tools. While AJAX has been possible for years, it’s only recently that the underlying technologies have achieved broad penetration, according to Writely CEO Sam Schillace.

“We’re seeing a phase change here because the Ajax stuff is widespread enough that you can develop mainstream applications for it now, and reach a wide audience,” Schillace said. “This was one of the first things we looked at before doing the application, and we reach, I think, something like 85 percent of the installed base right now. ”

Schillace said the use of AJAX by Google for Google Maps and Gmail, and by Yahoo (Quote, Chart) and MSN for their revamped e-mail services, has mainstreamed the technology. “They look sophisticated, they’re offered by big companies, people now feel they can [build companies on it].”

He added that Writely users don’t seem to care whether an application is Web-based or installed on the desktop, as long as it works. “It’s just better for lots of light document editing than the desktop, and we think we’ll see the same kind of migration from the desktop that the e-mail market saw.”

Hints Galore

Executives from Sun have given plenty of hints that the fruit of the Google alliance might be some kind of SAS. In an October 1 blog entry, Sun president Jonathan Schwartz wrote: “But value is returning to the desktop applications … 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.”

Tom Goguen, vice president of Sun’s software group, said Sun already has all the tools and software it would need to put StarOffice or OpenOffice behind a firewall as a service and host it, thanks to Sun’s May acquisition of Tarantella, now a component of Sun’s Secure Global Desktop 4. The Global Desktop lets businesses house applications on application servers housed in the corporate data center and displayed only the user interface on the client device.

Sun as a company is steering toward software-as-a-service — but it doesn’t want to run the front end. “I want to be a wholesaler, not a retailer,” John Loicano, the executive vice president of Sun’s software group, told a group of journalists this week. Sun’s grid services are the current manifestation of that strategy. But eventually, he said, “We’re not going to build the grids ourselves. Over time, the intent is to go to people who do it for a living.”

“People” like Google? Google has a massive, redundant infrastructure that’s rumored to be growing exponentially.

“Are we talking about that? You bet,” Loicano told the journalists during a recent chat about Sun’s product roadmap.

Loicano said eBay (Quote, Chart) and Google’s Gmail are examples of online services where users don’t know or care what software is powering them. (EBay runs on Sun Solaris.) “What I want to be able to do is provide to eBay the technology that allows them to do it,” he said. “I’m going to support my products, and let eBay or manage the front end they provide to customers.”

Similarly, couldn’t Google manage the front end of the office applications that Sun provided?

Mutual Benefits

Sun has been pitching the notion of the network as the computer pretty much forever, said Redmonk’s O’Grady. “Google is essentially the manifestation of that notion in company form,” he said. “The goals of both companies are remarkably well aligned.”

Nathan Torkington, an editor for O’Reilly Media, said, “It makes sense in the future for Google to offer Office-style functionality. It costs pennies a month per user to host such a service, as storage is essentially free now, and it’s a sensible investment for a search company looking to better know, profit from and lock in its users.” Torkington pointed out that documents created by users and residing on Google servers would be unique content that no other search provider would have access to.

But there’s a problem with using OpenOffice, Torkington said. “Google has publicly said that the fat client isn’t the way they think it will work,” he said, “and Java applets are nothing if not a fat client. If Google does have office suite plans in the future, they will end up duplicating a lot of the functionality of OpenOffice in the browser.”

Still, there are at least a couple reasons why Google might want to do this with Sun. First, OpenOffice might be fat, but it’s easily broken down into components, according to Gary Edwards, a consultant and designated representative of the open source community.

“One of great things about OpenOffice that Sun did — and it took them six years — was they re-organized Universal Network Objects,” Edwards said. “Every piece in OpenOffice has been broken down as an object, a component that can do certain things. The interfaces are very carefully described and architected.”

In fact, Google CEO Eric Schmidt hinted that this was the direction Google would take in a question and answer session at the press conference announcing the Sun collaboration. When asked directly whether Google would host OpenOffice, he said, “It’s very important to use the right language. Historically, when people say Office, OpenOffice, etc., they mean a very specific product. In the Web services model, there is a lot of authoring, e-mail, integration and search that’s [in different forms].”

Second, OpenOffice content uses the OpenDocument specification, which Edwards calls a “universal transformation layer” and an “Internet-ready file format.” Moreover, he says that AJAX, Google’s Web application tool of choice, is the perfect transformation tool for rendering OpenDocument in a browser. Google search, combined with user information stored in the format, will enable users to simply pull out the pieces of information they need to create new documents or reports.

Torkington pointed out that the OpenDocument format would make it cheaper and easier for Google to index documents. “If they hold your data, as they do with [Gmail], that’s one more thing that they can search for you that the competition can’t.”

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