A report in C/NET-ZDNet (they're the same now, right?) this weekend either explains the reason for the very public Microsoft-Apple rift that came to light 2 weeks ago or provides all the ammunition Microsoft needs to finally bail out of its failing relationship with the Macintosh maker. According to the report, Apple is working with Sun Microsystems to port the OpenOffice and StarOffice office-productivity suites to Mac OS X, providing Mac users with free or low-cost alternatives to the pricey Microsoft Office v. X for Mac, which retails for $500.

Let that sink in for a moment--because the potential repercussions are huge. In August 1997, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that the then-failing company was receiving a lifesaving shot in the arm from its one-time rival, Microsoft, which invested $150 million in Apple as well as forking over an undisclosed sum--said to be in excess of $1 billion--to settle previous patent disputes. But more important, Microsoft agreed to a 5-year software development deal, during which time it would continue to release new Office versions for the Mac, a crucial sign for consumers that the platform was still viable. In return, Apple agreed to replace Netscape with Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) as the default Web browser on new Mac systems.

Flash forward 5 years, and things have changed a bit. This spring, many Mac users called on the companies to renew their vows because the 5-year deal was coming to a close. At the time, Microsoft claimed that no new deal was required and that the company would continue making Mac software as long as the business made sense. However, only a few short months later, Kevin Browne, General Manager of Microsoft's Mac Business Unit (MacBU), dropped a bombshell just days before the MacWorld 2002 trade show: Browne said that Microsoft would stop selling Macintosh software if sales didn't pick up. Office v. X, the most recent Office for Mac product, had sold far less than expected and far less than earlier versions, he said. Browne also complained that Apple didn't do enough to convert its existing users to Mac OS X, a claim Apple denied. Furthermore, Apple complained that Office v. X was prohibitively expensive for most Mac users.

The companies' public spat over Mac OS X adoption and Office v. X sales suddenly highlighted the fact that their relationship had silently soured over the years. The July 2002 MacWorld event was the first since August 1997 that didn't include a Microsoft demonstration of some sort--a telling omission. Instead, Jobs touted several initiatives aimed at converting Windows users to the Mac. Clearly, Apple's attitude toward Microsoft has changed.

And now Apple and Sun have plans for OpenOffice--which is an open-source project--and StarOffice, Sun's commercial version of OpenOffice that features various proprietary extensions and add-ons. "Historically, Apple was a little bit worried about working with \[Sun\] because of their relationship with Microsoft," says Tony Siress, Sun's senior director of desktop marketing solutions. "\[Now\] Microsoft is mad, and Apple's coming at them hardcore."

No friend of Microsoft, Sun wants to see Apple bundle Sun's StarOffice product for free with all new Macs, a move that would further hinder Office v. X sales. "I don't want to sell StarOffice for OS X," Siress told C/NET. "I want Apple to bundle it. I'll give them the code. I'd love it if I could get the team at Apple to do joint development and they distribute it at no cost--that it's their product. Nobody makes a product more beautiful on \[the Mac\] than Apple." To facilitate this goal, Sun has given Apple the StarOffice source code, he said.

Of course, even if Apple does include StarOffice with Mac OS X, perhaps branded as an Apple product, that still leaves IE. Mac fans--many of whom still harbor resentment about Microsoft's less-than-stellar Mac products of the mid-1990s--have often bristled that they are essentially forced to use IE on Mac OS X. This sentiment arises because the browser alternatives, including OmniWeb, iCab, and the recently released Mozilla browser, are immature or performance-challenged on Mac OS X. A more recent entry, however, holds promise. Dubbed Chimera, this open-source browser uses Mozilla's excellent rendering engine and a native Mac OS X shell to provide a simple, fast, and attractive experience. And most intriguingly, Apple just hired one of Chimera's primary developers, though he can't discuss what he's working on because of Apple's strict disclosure policies.

Is he working on a new Apple-branded Web browser? Yes, I think so. And that product, combined with free office productivity suite alternatives, will likely signal the end of the Apple-Microsoft relationship once and for all.