Monday, January 16, 2006

When Will Microsoft Release Office for Linux?

When will Microsoft release Office for Linux?

We are seeing some sporadic reaction from governments around the world to Microsoft's practical monopoly on both personal computer desktop operating systems (Microsoft Windows) and desktop productivity software (Microsoft Office). The government of Peru put forward a bill in 2002 that was passed into law in late 2005 encouraging government institutions to use Open Source Software:
"...Basically, we can say that the fundamental principles that drive the present Bill are tightly related to the basic guarantees of a democratic State and we can sum them up in the following:
  • Free Access of the citizens to public information
  • Perenniality of public data
  • Security of the State and of the citizens

To guarantee the citizens' free access to information, it is indispensable that the coding of the data not be tied to a sole provider. The use of standard and open formats guarantees this free access, making possible the creation of compatible software."

The city of Munich decided in 2003 to change 14,000 PCs running the Windows operating system to the Linux operating system and from Microsoft Office to, an equivalent but free software. South Korea, China, and Taiwan are further examples. Most recently The Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to make the Opendocument file format, supported by, the exclusive format for all electronic documents generated by the Executive Department.

Why has this move from Microsoft's proprietary systems to open systems started only in the last few years? There are a few reasons:
  1. Competing and relatively mature equivalent software and operating systems are only now available and they are either free or obtainable at low cost.
  2. The importance of being able to recover electronic documents has become more and more apparent over time. Remember the IBM PC was introduced in 1981, only 25 years ago. Since laws like Sarbanes-Oxley have been passed the importance of recovering documents that are 10 or more years old has increased. Since the way Microsoft stores files, in MS Word for example, has remained a proprietary secret there has been no reliable way to fully recover older documents when new versions no longer support the format the originals were saved in.
  3. Microsoft's Office has become more expensive over its life and has since remained that way. In the early days the price charged for the product could be argued due to having to develop a brand new application but after so many versions of the product it is hard for users to accept being gouged. Just take a look at how much cash MS has on hand and it will become obvious.
Although enough organizations have decided to make the move to free software to worry Microsoft none has as yet completed the move. How successfully and cost-effectively it can be done therefore remains an unanswered question. I am sure Mr. Gates and Mr. Ballmer are not losing sleep over lost revenues. The same article that discusses Peru's move to encourage competing software in government also calls Peru a "hotbed of piracy". Microsoft has been losing money in this and in other developing economies to software theft for years. It is the current exposure (bad press) and the future lost revenues that worry them. Linux and still need a little work before they are adopted by mainstream users but are getting closer with each new version released. If Microsoft were to release Office for Linux today they would hasten a move to their arch-rival operating system, something they certainly have no interest in doing. I expect that once Linux adoption hits an as-yet undefined 'tipping point' (I predict within 5 years) they will sell versions of Office that either run on Linux or within a Web browser or other thin client that will run within the Linux OS. IBM has released a new collaboration software called IBM Workplace that allows you to, among other things, create MS Word compatible documents through a browser (yes, it works with Firefox) without having Word on your computer. It uses to do this. I also suspect that the effective price of Office will drop significantly over the following years to allow Microsoft to keep its hold on businesses and consumers by maintaining their share of the market. By then they will have other applications using Office and its services and for which we will again be paying. Gates' and Ballmer's hands are in many pies these days, not only in order to grow their revenues, but also to protect them against future erosion. The days when MS could make, as in mint, money selling Office suites and Operating Systems are nearing an end. This article written by an ex-Microsoftie discusses Microsoft's reliance on Windows and Office revenues.

Even so, I expect Redmond has one or two cards up its sleeves and will have little trouble continuing to be profitable for decades to come. I wish them well and am glad to see the gradual shift in their business practices to a more collaborative approach. That's what real competition does to a monopoly that wants to survive. So my hats off to all the people and companies that have helped make Linux a reality. To SUN for open sourcing after purchasing it from its creator, to all the other companies and communities that have made open source software a reality (the Mozilla Foundation, the makers of GIMP, Novell, the Apache Foundation and many, many more), and to Microsoft who are proving that you can learn how to play nice well after Kindergarten.

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