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The Office Conundrum

[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their
own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today.
]

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
EIC
Linux Orbit

You can flame the LinuxOrbit editor-in-chief at [email protected]. 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.