Sun Microsystems announced Tuesday that it has acquired Star Division Corporation, makers of the StarOffice office productivity suite, a little-known set of applications used mostly on Linux, though a Windows version is also available. Sun, of course, seems to be ignoring the lessons of history: Company after company has attempted to compete with Microsoft's desktop applications and failed. But Sun, which claims to have no interest in actually competing with Microsoft Office, says that it will instead provide StarOffice over the Internet to any user that has a Web browser. This, of course, bypasses the need for Windows and provides users of other platforms with capabilities that were previously impossible.

There are numerous problems with the Sun plan, of course. Companies such as Lotus and Corel have tried and failed to provide low-bandwidth versions of their Office suites over the Internet. But Sun says the time for change has come.

"This is not something where we sat around all day and said, 'How can we pick a fight with Microsoft?'" said Sun president Ed Zander. "This is about us changing the rules of the game."

The StarOffice suite offers a full complement of productivity applications, including word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, email, and calendaring software. It even reads and writes Office 97 formats. And StarOffice was recently released in a Java version, which will run on any Java-capable machine, including Network Computers. Sun will likely begin pushing this version.

Sun, like former Network Computer champ Oracle, has little understanding of the desktop world. As PCs inched higher and higher, consuming first the workstation market and now the server market, UNIX old-timers such as Sun must expand into new and unfamiliar territory to sustain growth. Whether StarOffice can succeed under Sun remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Star Division's 150 employees already understand the desktop market better than the goliath that is buying them. Hopefully, Sun will take the time to learn, rather than find its business come crashing down around them as Novell did when it purchased WordPerfect back in the mid-1990's