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

eWEEK 30: Microsoft, Lotus, Borland and WordPerfect were the major contenders in a 1990s battle for supremacy in the office suite market that Microsoft Office ultimately won.

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.