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Saturday, September 24, 2005

Will OpenDocument Affect the Desktop Landscape?

We are used to news about Microsoft loosing accounts to open source but the winner is usually Linux and it's typically on the server and I have quite a few blog entries about Linux displacing Windows especially in governments and more often than not in Europe and emerging countries. So why am I interested in this news? Simply because so many of us are frustrated with the lack of competition and innovation on the desktop, therefore it is refreshing to hear news like the one we heard this week. The state of Massachusetts has decided to kick Microsoft out of their provisioning system which will affect about 50,000 desktop PCs that will have to be migrated to products that comply with the OpenDocument standard. Such products include OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, KOffice, and IBM Workplace. Oracle Collaboration suite will probably join this list of OpenDocument supporters soon.

Microsoft which dominates the desktop/office market has said it is expanding the use of XML in its desktop products but does not intend to support the OpenDocument format. The OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) is a standardized XML-based file format specification for office applications. It defines requirements needed by text documents as well as spreadsheets, or graphical documents. For more information about OpenDocument read this FAQ. IBM said this week that more governments are seriously considering OpenDocument products to replace Microsoft Office including some Norway, Denmark and Japan, as well as other U.S. state governments.

Microsoft's answer to this news is simple; it's using impressive numbers to make this event irrelevant: Along with Windows, the Office suite is one of two cash cows for the software maker. The vast majority of the company's profits come from those two products. MS Office, which is upgraded about every three years and includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, brought in more than $11 billion last year, or about 28 percent of Microsoft's total revenue.

For Microsoft, the need for innovation and compelling new releases becomes critical. Earlier this month, Microsoft offered developers a preview at the its plans for the next version of Office, code-named Office 12 slated for release in the second half of next year (something tells me we won't see it before mid/late 2007). Office 12 is supposed to increase workers' productivity by better making sense of ever-growing amounts of data. Office 12 will offer with Excel the ability to create dashboards and scorecards that offer a quick way to visually keep track of how a business is doing. In PowerPoint, Office 12 will help automate more of the graphics features from within the presentation program so users can create better looking documents without much design effort. Finally, Office 12 is supposed to introduce much closer ties between office products (such as Word and Excel) and Microsoft's server software which is pretty scary. This will make documents less interoperable with other products, less portable and even more proprietary.

In conclusion, I can't repeat this enough; I am as far from communism as can be. I am all for commercial software and rewarding innovation in fact, my paycheck comes from a company that does a great job at building and selling software. However my employer is a huge supporter of open standards and increasingly involved with the open source community.

What decisions like the one made by the state of Massachusetts (especially if we see more of them in the coming months) are certainly going to push Microsoft to innovate and consider interoperability more seriously by adopting standards like OpenDocument. My opinion is simple, if Microsoft has the best office suite, they should have no problem supporting open standards for document exchange and compete in an open environment. Even if it is tempting to keep an absolute monopoly on the desktop market, the last thing Microsoft wants to do is turn a blind eye to threats like open source or industry standards.

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