The news that Microsoft is planning to milk even more from its Office brand with “server” versions of its office productivity applications can be interpreted in many ways—particularly since it was leaked on the fourth birthday of OpenOffice.org.
The open-source desktop productivity suite has increasingly been a thorn in Microsofts side. Born as a result of the acquisition of StarOffice by Sun Microsystems, OpenOffice.org has won a fair number of fans—particularly overseas. The European Union and French governments have adopted OpenOffice for internal use.
And when taken in hand with the OpenGroupware.org project, Mozillas Firefox and Thunderbird and the rest of the open-source efforts in core business computing functions, OpenOffice is starting to become a contender for the status that Office has attained—that of a solutions platform. With the upcoming release of OpenOffice 2.0—scheduled for this winter—the project will become an even bigger threat to the flow of Office revenues to Redmond.
Since OpenOffice is multiplatform, has a common API base across platforms and can be extended relatively easily (take, for example, NeoOfficeJ, a Java-based interface to OpenOffice that integrates the suite with the services of the Mac OS X operating system), the project is already a good choice for looking to deploy Office-like functionality to a variety of users and devices.
But where OpenOffice really threatens to kick Office right between the APIs is among users who arent part of Microsofts installed base. There are 39 approved localization projects for OpenOffice, in languages ranging from Arabic to Vietnamese.
Perhaps one of the reasons Microsoft may be so eager to create a thousand new versions of its Windows platform and Office platform for various niches and overseas markets is because if customers in the last remaining growth markets for software start off using OpenOffice, there will be little reason for them to switch to Microsofts wares.
Thats because OpenOffice is out-Microsofting Microsoft. In the 1990s, Microsoft laid waste to its word processing and office automation competitors by being good enough—providing 80 percent of the functionality of the other products, while being cheaper by virtue of being bundled. WordPerfect (and then Corel) and Lotus never recovered.
But now, OpenOffice is starting to do the same to Microsoft in emerging markets by providing 80 percent of the functionality for little or nothing in the way of cost—particularly when compared with what it costs to deploy a copy of, say, the most recent Chinese localized version of Windows and Office.
Microsoft isnt safe at home, either. With the continual cycle of security woes the company has had with Windows, Internet Explorer and Outlook, other operating systems (and application suites) are starting to look awfully good to some major Microsoft customers—such as U.S. federal, state and local governments, and some pretty big corporate users as well.
The architecture of the next release of OpenOffice will make it even better suited to deployment in whole or in part to Linux and Unix terminals, thin clients and other devices where Office cant roam now—and significantly ahead of the planned Office server platforms.
Then, the open alternative may very well take the initiative away from Microsoft. Now thats something to keep Steve Ballmer awake at night.