Google Inc. took a step toward challenging Microsoft Corp.'s dominance of computer software with the announcement Tuesday of a collaboration agreement with Sun Microsystems Inc.

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google Inc. took a step toward challenging Microsoft Corp.’s dominance of computer software with the announcement Tuesday of a collaboration agreement with Sun Microsystems Inc.

The move could lead to Google offering next-generation word processing, spreadsheet and collaboration tools that would take on Microsoft’s industry-leading Office suite of software.

As part of the agreement, Sun will offer Google’s search toolbar with downloads of its free Java software, which is required to run a variety of Web-based applications and works with multiple operating systems.

The two companies, which did not disclose terms of the deal, said they also agreed “to explore opportunities to promote” other Sun technologies, including the freely available OpenOffice.

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OpenOffice, an offshoot of Sun’s StarOffice, is a leading challenger to Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office suite, a major cash cow for the world’s largest software company. Both offer a word processor and spreadsheet among other applications.

“OpenOffice is already an alternative, but if Google gets involved in supporting it, that could be the thing that puts it over the top,” said Forrester Research analyst John R. Rymer.

Neither Sun CEO Scott McNealy nor Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, would offer details on when or how Google might distribute Sun’s software. Both said the Google toolbar option for Java downloads is just a first step in a significant agreement.

“You can speculate all day long about all the different ways we can go and work together. They’re all legitimate speculation,” McNealy said. “We only want to talk about what we’re talking about here now … we expect more.”

Microsoft did not immediately comment.

The deal could boost the fortunes of programs that work on multiple operating systems, eating into Microsoft’s profits from its dominant Windows computing environments.

Increasingly, many of the applications that computer users value most — such as news and weather tickers — run as Web services independent of the operating systems on their computers.

Java is a backbone of those Web services, along with Microsoft’s .NET architecture.

Since it was launched a decade ago, Java has been used to power Web-based applications, standalone programs, cell phones and other gadgets across a variety of computer operating systems.

Under the deal, the Google Toolbar will be offered to users as they download the Java Runtime Environment.

Eventually, the Java component could be offered to users who download the free toolbar, which provides quick access to Google search, spell checking and a popup-ad blocker.

Schmidt said the deal opens the possibility of additional collaboration.

“Google and Java are two of the most widely recognized technology brands because they provide users with online tools that enhance their lives on a day to day basis,” he said. “We look forward to exploring other areas of collaboration.”

Though Sun is best known as a server maker — Schmidt and McNealy hinted that Google may be buying Sun hardware — it also develops the Solaris operating system and Java.

A key component of Sun’s decade-old Java, its application-running platform, was the source of one of many rifts between Microsoft and Sun over the years.

Sun first sued the world’s top software maker in 1997, claiming the Redmond, Wash., company rewrote elements of Java specific to Windows. Later, Microsoft said it would yank Java entirely from its ubiquitous software.

The wrangling ended in spring 2004, when the companies surprised the world with a $1.95 billion settlement and 10-year collaboration agreement.

On Tuesday, McNealy declined to comment on how the Google partnership might impact its deal with Microsoft.

Both Sun and Google share the common root of Stanford University.

Sun was founded at Stanford in the 1980s, while Google got its start there in the 1990s. Schmidt was a 14-year Sun employee before leaving for Novell Inc.

And one of Sun’s co-founders, Andy Bechtolsheim, gave Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin $100,000 in 1998 to incorporate their young search company. Venture capitalist John Doerr sits on the boards of both companies.

“It’s a natural for these two companies to work well together,” McNealy said.

Though Sun has only recently started to show signs of recovery following the tech bust of 2000-2001, Google’s fortunes have steadily risen. Though best known as an Internet search engine, it now offers free e-mail, maps, instant messaging and video.

Last week, Google announced it would bid on a project to provide Wi-Fi to San Francisco.

Shares of Sun rose 3 cents, to $4.22, in Tuesday trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market, while Google lost $5.23, or 1.6 percent, dropping to $313.45. Shares of Microsoft lost 56 cents, or 2.2 percent, to $24.94.

AP Business Writers Michael Liedtke in San Francisco and Allison Linn in Seattle contributed to this report.