You can't escape Microsoft Office

Sure, there are alternatives to Windows, but if you want to do business, you've got to have MS Word and Excel.

So you want to rid yourself of Microsoft products once and for all. Maybe you convert all the computers in your office to the Linux operating system, or FreeBSD, or even Unix. You even retrain everyone to use Corel's WordPerfect. You are a Microsoft-free zone. That works fine, if you're living on a desert island.

But if you must communicate with other businesses, they will inevitably e-mail you a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet. And that's when you'll discover that the place to look for a Microsoft monopoly isn't Windows, it's Office suite applications.

Microsoft's true dominance
In all likelihood, you won't be able to view that important Word document or spreadsheet unless you have at least one box in your office running Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. So, like a few Linux shops I know of, you keep a Windows box around -- because without one, you couldn't do business.

"Actually, we have two Windows NT machines rack-mounted in the lab," one system administrator told me.

And he bends over backwards to avoid them. "Whenever we need to create or view a Word or Excel document, we connect to one of the NT servers. We then FTP the file to the NT box, do whatever work we need to do, and FTP it back." (Note: Microsoft is a partner in MSNBC.)

This is not a fringe phenomenon. Most law firms still prefer WordPerfect to Word. But even Corel admits most firms must buy and keep a few versions of Microsoft Office around because WordPerfect can't really handle Word documents.

Microsoft's true dominance lies in the ubiquity of Microsoft Office, combined with its proprietary nature. Sure, there are some clunky ways to view a Word document or Excel spreadsheet without its mother program, but practically speaking, people don't. So even those who want to rid themselves of Redmond software simply give in and buy Office.

There are alternatives
As millions of Linux users will tell you, Microsoft Windows is not your only choice. Linux or Unix or the Macintosh OS, for that matter, can serve all your operating system needs. And despite Microsoft's increases in market share, its Internet Explorer is far from a monopoly in the browser business. Netscape's Communicator and a number of smaller alternatives can serve your browsing needs.

But if you want to do business, you must have Microsoft Office running either on Windows or on a Macintosh. Simply because 90 percent of the rest of the world, some 75 million people, use it. About 8 percent use Lotus Notes, and 1 percent use Corel's WordPerfect Office, according to the Giga Information Group.

"By moving to other platforms, you lose your ability to communicate with other business leaders," Giga's Rob Enderle said. "Microsoft has a couple of good defensive positions here."

Don't take away my spreadsheet
People don't care how their computers work, they care about what they can do with their computers. Windows is not essential to them, and, for that matter, the brand of Web browser isn't important -- but Word is. And Excel is. This is something Microsoft understands very well and has smartly used to its advantage.

"Office is a very important front end for people to get their work done. It's where many people spend their entire day. It's their working environment," said John Duncan, product manager for Microsoft Office. "We recognize that people are familiar with the Office environment. The key objective of Office is to make people more productive. The best way to do that is give them more functionality within that environment."

So Microsoft has added and added and added features to Office products -- so many features that Office is almost an operating system in itself.

The price of much of that added functionality has been proprietary file formats -- formats that are difficult for the folks at Corel to reverse-engineer. So WordPerfect does a less-than-perfect job of translating and opening Word documents.

Office a popular product
Office really is a powerful product, and it won its powerful position in a largely fair fight. Remember, the 20 states that sued Microsoft along with the Justice Department originally included MS Office contracts in its suit. They later dropped that component for lack of evidence. Microsoft did some PC maker arm-twisting, but gained no more benefit than did Lotus from IBM.

Instead, Office won a popularity contest with customers, and there's nothing wrong with that. New features and Microsoft's specialty -- integration of products -- led Microsoft's Office to its powerful position.

Microsoft's big drive in the early '90s to have Excel act and work like Word, and vice versa, has paid dividends (in fact, the company says 50 percent of the code is shared across applications). And of course, that makes it harder to live, not just without Word, but without the entire Office suite.

Will that dominace last?
But all that development, and all those nice charting features in Excel, make it that much harder for Corel to catch up. Still, the Ottawa company tries and claims its WordPerfect Office 2000 product will properly render virtually any Word or Excel document; the folks at Lotus say SmartSuite already does this, with only a few exceptions ("It will always be imperfect," a Lotus spokesman told me.)

Even more important, all three companies say the future of document-sharing lies on the Web. E-mailed attachments in proprietary formats won't last forever. All these programs will make it easy to post and share word processing and spreadsheet files on the Web.

"We are headed toward universal format," says Lotus' Adam Banker. "There are vendors who try to add features that aren't open. But customers are pushing vendors harder than ever on this. The marketplace is pushing very hard in that direction."

That essentially means shared Word documents will be viewed within Web browsers -- no need for Office. In fact, MS Office 2000 will encourage this, says Microsoft's Duncan, even if that takes away from Microsoft's dominant position.

Of course, today's office software tools already write HTML, albeit poorly. And I have a hard time imagining that a Word file posted to a Web site will be easily edited using WordPerfect for quite some time. Which means, for the foreseeable future, it'll be almost impossible to find a business that isn't running any Microsoft products.


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