Coming Soon: Microsoft Office for Linux?

Every time Microsoft moves a finger the news booms across the entire computer industry like rolling thunder. And if word gets out that our cousins from Redmond are so much as thinking about twitching a pinkie, the Linux community dissects the potential act in just about every way and from just about every viewpoint imaginable. That's why I find it odd that I've heard no one mention two issues with the recent Microsoft news that strike me as being obvious.


Every time Microsoft moves a finger the news booms across the entire computer industry like rolling thunder. And if word gets out that our cousins from Redmond are so much as thinking about twitching a pinkie, the Linux community dissects the potential act in just about every way and from just about every viewpoint imaginable. That’s why I find it odd that I’ve heard no one mention two issues with the recent Microsoft news that strike me as being obvious.

Bye, Bye Bill

First, Bill Gates hands over the CEO position to Steve Ballmer and takes a new job as Microsoft’s official ubergeek (to paraphrase the press release ever so slightly). Given what the last year has been like for Microsoft, and for Gates in particular, this isn’t a huge surprise. Neither Gates nor his company came across well in the Department of Justice trial, thanks to Microsoft’s seemingly endless string of courtroom follies and Gates’ shaky performance in his deposition. Plus, Microsoft was facing other legal issues, like the Sun Microsystems lawsuit over Java, as well as relatively minor ones like the recently settled legal tango with Caldera. Clearly the richest man on the planet was having no fun, so he chose to drop out of the spotlight and return to his coding roots. Makes perfect sense, so far; given the same choice I would have quit after I’d made my first billion.

But it’s also likely that Microsoft and Gates have seen the handwriting on the wall, and it says, “Get ready for a breakup.” Even though they’ll likely fight any such action tooth and nail, it sure looks like Gates is positioning himself to be in charge of the post-breakup piece that he’d most like to run — the Internet and tools company.

The Apps, Always the Apps

While we’re trundling down this virtual path, lets see where it leads. What does it mean to Linux and its users if a breakup happens, as nearly everyone keeps speculating, with Windows and applications landing in separate companies? Quite a lot, actually, including at least one truly perverse side effect. First of all, immediately after the breakup we’d surely see Steve Ballmer, CEO of Redmond Applications, Inc. (OK, maybe they’ll think of a better name) announce that they’re porting Microsoft Office to Linux. Seem far fetched? Ask yourself: Why wouldn’t they do it? Suddenly freed from all economic and political incentives to produce only Windows products, it would make perfect sense for a publicly held applications software company to lunge after the hottest new market in the industry.

But that’s just the first domino to fall. RAI (Redmond Applications, Inc.) Office would turbocharge Linux’s assault on the mainstream desktop, particularly in businesses, and its share of that segment would zoom to 10 or even 20 percent. Customers would love being able to run the same office apps they’ve used for years on a free operating system that’s stronger and more secure than a bank vault. This would be terrible news for RAI’s sibling, The Windows Company, but RAI wouldn’t care a nano-nit; it’s a separate company with its own agenda and its very own set of stockholders to please.

That’s still not the last domino in our little scenario, though: This turn of events would also be bad news for one of the brightest stars of the Linux firmament, Corel. On the Windows platform, Corel’s WordPerfect Office has been hammered into paste by Microsoft Office. The fact that WP Office is a first-rate, industrial-strength package that can exchange files with MS Office doesn’t matter; Microsoft’s suite is perceived as the standard, and it has a boa constrictor’s grip on 90 percent of the market, leaving Corel in an oxygen-challenged state from which it can’t escape, at least not within the Windows world. By comparison Linux is an entirely different and far more hospitable environment that gives Corel not only a chance to become the early favorite among the mainstream office suites, but also to help shape and speed the creation of that market. Corel’s recent merger with tools company Inprise/Borland, plus its announcement right afterward that Linux-related acquisitions are in the works, are the best possible proof of how seriously it’s approaching this opportunity. Like Gates’ career change at Microsoft, this is another move that seems almost painfully obvious in the proper light. If you’re getting creamed in one market by a juggernaut that controls the platform and standards your products run on, moving to an open, evolving market that’s heavily based on standards is a no-brainer.

Given all that, the two most likely outcomes are easy to predict. If Microsoft Office doesn’t move to Linux, for whatever reason, Corel’s future is boundless — it has a solid, end-user-centric Linux distribution, as well as a complete office suite that’s being enhanced to minimize the pain of converting from Microsoft Office, plus CorelDraw and other applications being ported. It’s also announced plans to incorporate licensed technology from GraphOn into its distribution that will let Linux clients run Windows applications hosted on a Windows NT server. And on top of that it now controls some of the best compiler and tools technology in the world, including the upcoming Linux versions of Borland’s C++ Builder and Delphi RAD (Rapid Application Development) tools. Having internal access to that tools technology can only accelerate Corel’s Linux development and potentially give it an edge over other companies trying to compete for the business desktop-software market. The bottom line is that Corel is positioned perfectly to surf the Linux tsunami right down Wall Street, pleasing users and making obscene amounts of money in the process — unless someone diverts the wave to Redmond, that is.

A Specter Looms

If Microsoft does break up and Office comes to Linux within the next year or two, Corel’s bubble could burst quicker than you can say Blue Screen of Death. It would be caught in mid-air, prepared to address a market that doesn’t yet exist — the mainstream desktop — and it would suddenly have to contend with Microsoft Office and its immense advantage in user base. Since the desktops would still be very heavily dominated by Windows and Office, the typically ultra-conservative IT managers would be far more inclined to stick with Microsoft (or RAI) Office even if they change the operating system beneath it, rather than change both the OS and the most important applications.

Ironically, the best news for Corel is that Microsoft will almost surely be stubborn enough to drag out the DoJ affair as long as possible, clinging to hope that it can avoid a breakup, no matter what the odds. That would buy Corel precious time for the mainstream desktop to develop, and give it a chance to establish a dominant position. For users the ultimate irony is that if Microsoft somehow avoids a breakup, it will merely change the product that helps propel Linux onto millions of desktops from Microsoft’s own office suite to Corel’s. Corel’s suite will still make the sea change happen, but it will take a bit longer for the IT crowd to accept it in addition to Linux.

Before You Flame Me…

I can hear people firing up their word processors already. In the interest of saving your time, let me address two issues the Linux community might raise after reading this combination of analysis and blatant guesswork.

“Microsoft is evil, and I won’t use Microsoft Office, no matter what.” It doesn’t matter — you’re probably not the intended audience for Office for Linux. The tens of millions of users running Windows and Office today and looking for a better “desktop experience” (to borrow a piece of Microsoft-speak) are the audience, and they don’t care where the software comes from, as long as it works.

“Linux already has plenty of office apps, including StarOffice and ApplixWare.” True, but irrelevant to the mainstream. Those people don’t know about those products and don’t care. They want to run the same programs that they’re running now on their computer, or the closest thing possible, and they don’t want the system to crash. Anything else is a non-starter, no matter how good those programs are.

The Dirt Road Behind, and Ahead

There’s one other aspect to the endlessly entertaining Linux/Windows battle that no one wants to recognize: Microsoft has no one to blame for its coming fall but itself. Microsoft has alienated so many customers and business partners that it has created an army of people who are willing to spend vast amounts of money and energy to break free of Redmond’s grasp.

Here, Linux will continue to rampage through server rooms, which gains it precious enterprise credibility even as it evolves at a stunning pace into a Windows killer on the desktop. Microsoft has cast the die itself, and it remains to be seen what part it will play in its own undoing.

Lou Grinzo is reviews editor at Linux Magazine. He can be reached at lou@linux-mag.com.

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