When news of a Google and Sun partnership started leaking earlier this month, many assumed the companies were going to make a big announcement about Google working on the Sun-sponsored OpenOffice.org project and possibly hosting a Web-based version of the office productivity suite. Instead, the eventual partnership announced by the two companies was quite vague, with little reference to OpenOffice.org, which could emerge as a major competitor to Microsoft's valuable Office suite. Now, Google is hiring developers to help improve OpenOffice.org. So the rumors begin anew: What is Google up to?

"We want to hire a couple of folks to help make OpenOffice better," says Google manager Chris DiBona. "We use a fair amount of open-source software at Google. We want to make sure that's a healthy community. And we want to make sure open source preserves competitiveness within the industry."

That sounds innocent enough. But beyond its vague relationship with Sun Microsystems, why would Google invest in a product that is seemingly unrelated to its core business? Google isn't saying. But one of the OpenOffice.org issues the company would like to address--its massive 80 MB download size--provides a clue. One of the rumors circulating before Sun and Google announced their agreement was that Google would offer a hosted version of OpenOffice.org 2.0 as a Web service, similar to its GMail and search services. If Google can significantly reduce the size of OpenOffice.org, this service would be more feasible.

Supporting OpenOffice.org also brings intangible benefits to the company's all-out war with Microsoft. Now that Google is dominating the Web space in so many ways, the company has found itself increasingly in Microsoft's cross-hairs. While Microsoft is busy emulating all of Google's services, Google might be able to slow it down further by boosting OpenOffice.org, which competes directly with one of Microsoft's cash cows. Indeed, sales of Microsoft Office and Windows essentially fund the development of most of Microsoft's other products and services; these ventures would often be unsustainable on their own.

As a demonstration of Google's effect on Microsoft, consider this fact. Tomorrow, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and CTO Ray Ozzie will unveil the company's plans for creating software services that work well over the Internet. While Microsoft refuses to provide a pre-briefing about this event, beyond announcing that it is happening, the "Wall Street Journal" reported today that the company will "disclose new plans for combining programs such as Windows and Office with additional features and services that can be accessed over the Internet or corporate networks." In other words, it's possible that Microsoft could pre-empt Google and Sun by announcing a plan to make Office more accessible via the Web or, perhaps more dramatic, available as an ad-supported Web service. That sounds a lot like something Google might do.