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

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2013-10-31

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

When it comes to office productivity suites, Microsoft's Office clearly rules the day and remains the biggest application software cash cow that the Redmond, Wash., software company has to muster.

Market research firm Forrester on Oct. 15 released a report that reaffirmed the long dominance of Office and the weak installed base productivity suite alternatives. In a blog post summarizing his report, Forrester analyst Philipp Karcher notes that his firm surveyed 155 companies to get a sense of how Office is faring in the market.

"Microsoft continues to have a stranglehold on office productivity in the enterprise: Just 6 percent of companies in our survey give all or some employees an alternative instead of the installed version of Microsoft Office," Karcher wrote in his report.

"Most surprising of all, multi-platform support is NOT a priority. Apps on iOS and Android devices were important to 16 percent of respondents, and support for non-Windows PCs was important to only 11 percent. For now, most technology decision-makers seem satisfied with leaving employees to self-provision office productivity apps on their smartphones and tablets if they really want them."

Furthermore, the Forrester survey showed that despite open-source and cloud options, Office continues to rule and alternatives show little traction.

"In 2011, 13 percent of respondents supported open-source alternatives to Office," Karcher said. "This year the number is just 5 percent. Google Docs has slightly higher adoption, and is in use at 13 percent of companies."

But things were not always this way. Back in late 1980s and 1990s, Office didn't dominate the market the way it does now. It had its fair share of competitors, each of which captured a piece of the market, as each software company took the view that providing a productivity suite with multiple apps offered a competitive advantage. And each suite had its own unique strength.

Essentially, an office productivity suite is a collection of desktop applications for use by knowledge workers. The component, usually started life as individual spreadsheet, word processing, presentation and database products that were marketed separately.

But it quickly became clear that enterprise software buyers preferred to buy, install and maintain a suite of these products with a consistent user interface with an ability to share data files and interact with each other, sometimes in ways that the operating system would not normally allow.

Besides the basic set of applications, some suites had one or several of the following: a graphics suite, desktop publishing software, formula editor, diagramming software, email client, communication, a personal information manager, a note-taking program, groupware, project management software and Web log analysis software, among others.

One of the first early office "suites," came from Apple. In 1983, Apple shipped its Lisa computer with an office suite that included LisaWrite, Calc, List, Project, Draw, Paint and Terminal. Lisa stood for Local Integrated System Architecture.

Meanwhile, AppleWorks was an integrated software package for the Apple II platform, released in 1984 by Apple Computer. For the 1984 Macintosh, Apple offered MacWrite, MacDraw and MacPaint in its suite.

Later, Claris, a subsidiary that was spun out of Apple, provided an office suite called ClarisWorks that included a word processor, a drawing program, a painting program, a spreadsheet, a database program and a terminal program for communications.

To assemble Office, Microsoft paired its word processor (Word) and Excel spreadsheet with PowerPoint, a Mac presentation application the company acquired in 1987. Microsoft Office is an office suite of desktop applications, servers and services for the Microsoft Windows and OS X operating systems, introduced by Microsoft Aug. 1, 1989.


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

Meanwhile, companies such as Lotus, Borland and WordPerfect were making money selling stand-alone application software. And they hoped to make more as IBM and Microsoft joined forces to deliver a new PC operating system known as OS/2. However, Microsoft pulled out of the OS/2 agreement and decided to continue developing and perfecting its Windows OS.

Windows proved far more popular than OS/2 and rapidly became the dominant graphical operating system on PCs, which also gave Microsoft an edge in developing Windows applications. It looked liked Microsoft's "Windows everywhere" marketing mantra would mean that enterprise PC users would end up using Microsoft applications almost by default.

To combat this, Lotus and other companies decided to assemble office suites to compete with Microsoft. Novell's Ray Noorda combined WordPerfect with Borland's Quattro Pro spreadsheet. Lotus put together a suite of applications, including its Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, combined with its Approach database, the Ami Pro word processor and the Organizer calendar to form Lotus SmartSuite.

Lotus sold its SmartSuite application suite for both Microsoft Windows and IBM's OS/2. And in 1994, Lotus also acquired the Notes groupware package developed by Ray Ozzie. In 1995, IBM bought Lotus to acquire Notes as a messaging product. That put IBM in Microsoft's cross hairs as an office suite competitor.

WordPerfect became part of an office suite when the company entered into a co-licensing agreement with Borland Software in 1993. The offerings were marketed as Borland Office, containing Windows versions of WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, the Borland Paradox database and a LAN-based groupware package called WordPerfect Office.

Later in 1993, Borland explored expanding its ties with WordPerfect Corp. as a possible way to form a suite of programs to rival Microsoft's nascent integration strategy. WordPerfect itself was struggling with a late and troubled transition to Windows. The eventual joint company effort, named Borland Office for Windows was introduced at the 1993 Comdex computer show.

However, Borland Office never made significant inroads against Microsoft Office. WordPerfect was then bought by Novell. In October 1994, Borland sold Quattro Pro and rights to sell up to a million copies of Paradox to Novell for $140 million in cash to focus the company on its core software development tools and the Interbase database engine. Then Borland set its sights on shifting toward client-server strategy in corporate applications.

Ultimately, the WordPerfect product line was sold twice, first to Novell in June 1994 and then to Corel in January 1996. However, Novell kept the WordPerfect Office technology, incorporating it into its GroupWise messaging and collaboration product.

While Microsoft offered something that looked like a fully integrated office suite in Microsoft Office, a common complaint about early Windows versions of WordPerfect Office was that it looked like a collection of separate applications from different vendors cobbled together, with inconsistent user interfaces.

However, enabling applications from various software developers to work together on every platform was part of Novell's strategy. Novell had acquired WordPerfect for Windows from WordPerfect Corp., Paradox from Borland and various peripheral utilities from other companies.

To get them to all work together, Novell started to evangelize its "middleware," called Appware, as a means for other software developers to run their applications on every operating system. But Appware quickly faded as a cross-platform middleware solution.


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

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.


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