Sometime around this summer, Microsoft will release the 2003 version of its Office productivity suite, with hopes that companies and individuals will find enough value in it to undertake the upgrade.
What most impressed me about Office 2003, the Beta 2 release of which we reviewed in this weeks issue, is the way that Office embraces XML, and does so—thanks to its support for user-defined XML schema—in an open-ended, user-controlled way.
Most of what sets Office 2003 apart from previous versions relates to the way that Office documents can serve as the front-end pieces to data-rich back-end components, and in every case, the back-end options that Office extends to users are those that carry the Microsoft brand—and per-seat license fee.
This makes sense, of course, because Office 2003 is a Microsoft product, which means that its designed both to be good software, and to be an evangelizing force for Microsofts server operating systems and database products. The trouble is that the goals of making Office the most successful and valuable product it can be and of pushing the wares of other groups within Microsoft dont always fully jibe.
Microsoft would like as many people as possible to buy Office, but unless companies and individual users intend to do something with the XML functionality in Office, and unless enterprises intend to deploy Office for more than letter-writing and traditional number-crunching, they might as well stick with an earlier version of Office, or switch to a cheaper alternative.
Wouldnt it make sense, then, for Microsoft to make implementing the back-end portions of Office 2003-fronted smart documents as cheap and flexible to implement as possible?
Almost every Web hosting package includes free access to the open-source MySQL database, and why not? Its a value-add, and MySQL is free. An individual or a small business or a department in a larger company can access open-source software like MySQL easily and without licensing cost, which is why weve seen such a proliferation of dynamic Web sites, built with open-source software like phpNuke.
I think that Microsoft could significantly boost its sales today and protect its market share moving forward if it extended what its done with XML—that is, allow users to plug into an open, flexible and non-proprietary technology to better manage and create information—with popular and open tools such as Apache, MySQL and PHP.
Microsoft could push open components and still argue that by deploying the complete Microsoft product line, companies could enjoy functionality and perhaps performance benefits that a patched-together system would not provide.
If Microsofts server, database and other groups do indeed add enough value over open source rival products, then the company would have nothing to worry about—making it easier for Microsoft Office users to take non-MS back-end paths would sell more copies of Office, and could stoke users desire for additional functionality that an all-Microsoft system could deliver.
No matter what Microsoft does, its competitors—open source and proprietary alike—will eventually seize upon open source resources themselves.
Can Microsoft beat em by joining em? What do you think of a more independent Office? Talk to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.