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The Office Conundrum

Sep 07, 1999, 03:51 (11 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Gowin)

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Contributed by Linux Today reader, and LinuxOrbit Editor-In-Chief John Gowin

In the past week or so (actually, the rumors have been going on for a month) Sun Microsystems created a stir in the desktop computing arena by buying Star Division, the makers of Star Office. In addition to their purchase, Sun immediately announced that they would release the code for Star Office as open-source and partnered with Linuxcare (a top tier Linux support company) to support their new Office suite on Linux.

In one short week, Sun revived its chance to compete with Microsoft on the home and corporate desktop and placed itself at the front of the open-source movement. (The second part of that statement is open to debate, but since Linuxcare will be supporting StarOffice on Linux, this will be the first large-scale corporate use of the open-source model for support.)

Additionally, Sun's move prompted Microsoft to announce its plans to release Office apps on the Internet, although their plans are considerably less clear than Sun's.

Scott McNealy must be grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

All this news got me thinking about Office suites in general and their collective futures, which brought me to an interesting conundrum (hence the title of this article).

How will this recent news affect future users of Office suites?

To find the answer for myself, it helped to look at the history of Office applications and suites.

The Past

In the early days of desktop computing (80's), there really was no collection of applications under one software brand which we've grown so accustomed to calling "Office suites". (IBM had one in the mid 80's, but it slips my mind and a quick search at IBM's site gave me no answers. Any computer history buffs out there that want to fill in this blank, feel free.)

Word Processors were dominated by Corel's Word Perfect and MicroPro's WordStar, while spreadsheets were dominated by VisiCalc and Lotus 123. Business graphics and the other various applications included in the "Office" umbrella were really unheard of due to the limitations of hardware. E-mail was still largely a little known commodity to those using desktop computers and LANs were just being born. The Macintosh, though innovative enough to change the way we thought of the desktop, did not really dominate any aspect of Office applications, except for the GUI, which of course changed the fundamental way we use computers in general.

During this time, the trend for buying an application was largely determined by what others in your field of work were using. For example, WordStar was heavily rooted in the legal profession and WordPerfect seemed to be everywhere else. Compatability was already a key issue. Importing other file formats from one application to another was unheard of until the second half of the 80's.

The late 80's saw Microsoft making its first strides toward becoming the giant it is today. Word and Excel started grabbing huge chunks of the application market from their competition, due in part to the fact that Microsoft was increasing its hold on the OS market. They also allowed for importing other companies file formats, forcing them to be cross compatible with MS formats.

WordPerfect, although still strong, saw a steady decline in market share as well as Lotus 123 and their SmartSuite applications over the 1990's. As Windows and later Windows 95 proliferated, Microsoft Office became the dominant Office suite simply because it was already there when you bought the computer.

(Author's Note: This historical section is a brief overview of Office applications and implementations, drawn with the widest brushstrokes possible. Any oversight on my part of your favorite app or suite, is simply that, an oversight. It is not in anyway meant to slight what you perceive as an innovative product.)

Then came the Internet

Although much older than desktop computers, the Internet has had a profound impact on consumers in the last five years as well as software companies.

E-mail, at first, driven by higher education and online services early on, has had a huge impact on how the world does business. Corporate email systems are now mission critical, not convenient extras.

The added benefit of the Internet is a new distribution model. Applications are now distributed via the Internet instead of in traditional cardboard boxes. As bandwidth increases for home users through cable modems and other platforms, application distribution via the Internet will overtake traditional distribution methods, decreasing delivery costs.

The ability to create Internet ready content has also created an entirely new feature set for applications. "Sharing data" has become the buzzword often promised but seldom delivered without proprietary rules. Documents are now being thought of in application neutral terms, where the tool to create it is less important than the ability to share it across many platforms.

Both Sun and Microsoft see these benefits as well as the competition. Corel, when they launch their Linux version will have a platform for distributing WordPerfect for Linux.

So will the benefits for the software companies trickle down to the end users?

That is the conundrum that remains to be solved.

Although the deck is stacked in Microsoft's favor, due largely to the fact that the majority of new computers come with Microsoft products and OS pre-installed, the playing field for true competition can be leveled somewhat by Internet delivery, support and distribution.

As alternative operating systems proliferate, a truly level playing field of competition in the Office space will benefit the end users by creating Office suites with smaller footprints, better features, and better support.

Are Utopian days ahead? I doubt it, but it is interesting to consider the magnitude of Sun's purchase of StarDivision isn't it?

John Gowin
Linux Orbit

You can flame the LinuxOrbit editor-in-chief at jgowin@linuxorbit.com. John has written for ZD and TechRepublic as a technical writer and also helped develop their web sites. Currently, he is a partner in Third Level Strategies, a web consulting firm.