eWEEK at 30: How Microsoft Won the 1990s Office Suite Wars

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2013-10-31 Print this article Print

For Borland CEO and founder Philippe Kahn, this period in PC software industry history was a never-ending roller-coaster ride. Borland had grown explosively through the 1980s and into the mid 1990s. But the competition in the office suites field became very intense, and ultimately embroiled Borland and other companies in bitter legal battles.

Kahn contends that these legal battles distracted Lotus and Borland from improving their office suites and helped Microsoft build Office into a market-dominating product.

In describing his experience, Kahn said, "Borland was like high school for me: fun then, but I'm glad that I graduated and wouldn't go back."

One of the lasting outcomes of the suite wars of the 1990s was a federal court ruling on software copyright law that still holds sway today and matters a lot to software developers' freedom to innovate, according to Kahn.

This ruling came about because Lotus sued Borland claiming that Borland's spreadsheet, Quattro Pro had a command structure compatible with Lotus 123. Borland's argument was that command structures, like Cut/Copy/Edit are functional and not copyrightable. Lotus sued Borland in Boston and initially won its case.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the trial decision and found in Borland's favor that command structures and menus were an uncopyrightable "method of operation." This decision was ultimately upheld by default in a 4-4 tie vote by the U.S. Supreme Court after Justice John Paul Stevens recused himself from hearing the appeal.

Lotus initially filed its lawsuit in 1990, but the litigation and appeals were fated to drag on for nearly seven years. Although the lawsuit involved only Borland's Quattro Pro spreadsheet, the litigation would ultimately outlast Borland's part in the office suite wars.

"Lotus thought that they could litigate and not innovate," Kahn said. "And they did litigate. We appealed, and Lotus thought that they would win again. Seven years later, we were 100 percent vindicated, and that opinion still stands today. Lotus, by focusing on litigation, confused customers and opened the door for Microsoft to win the suite wars."

Kahn believes that the legal decision in Lotus vs. Borland remains an essential legal buttress that enables software developers to create innovative new applications. "I'm proud to not have given into Lotus' bullying and done the right thing, fighting for programmers' and innovators' rights," he said.

"Nobody cares about spreadsheets anymore, but that Supreme Court decision stands and rules software today," he said. "In fact, that is the first case that is studied in the best law schools that teach [intellectual property]. It's a whole chapter in Gary Reback's book Free the Market."

The suite wars were over by the end of the 1990s, and Microsoft Office has reigned supreme since then.

"The secret of our success was in packaging a suite of applications that delighted people and unleashed the ability to be productive in ways never before available," said Chris Schneider, Microsoft Office senior public relations manager. "And our continued success is based on pushing the boundaries of how technology can meet people's productivity needs today and into the future," the spokesperson said.

Office is so ubiquitous today that many jobs now require Office experience and skills—in many cases even for entry-level positions.

The way that Microsoft kept office on top is by continuing to add new features and application components as PCs and later the Internet became ever more powerful and sophisticated.  Office is still a primary revenue generator for Microsoft even as the company has moved this application suite to the Web with Office 365.



Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel