Originally Published: Wednesday, 31 May 2000 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Headed for a Breakup

It seems that regardless of which lines Microsoft gets broken into, Microsoft Office will be one of the mini-Microsofts. Assuming the process isn't bogged down in appeals courts for the next ten years, what does this mean for Linux aficionados?

After recently being declared a monopoly, Microsoft is quickly headed for a breakup. The judge in the case even went as far as to ask the Department of Justice to prepare briefs on splitting the company into three pieces. It seems that regardless of which lines Microsoft gets broken into, Microsoft Office will be one of the mini-Microsofts. Assuming the process isn't bogged down in appeals courts for the next ten years, what does this mean for Linux aficionados?

Most seem to immediately assume that when Office is no longer exclusively tied to Windows, a Linux port will be forthcoming. After all, there already is a Macintosh port. With Linux gaining market share at a rapid rate, it might make sense for this splinter company to port their wares into a growing market.

Is this necessarily the case? The Office revenue stream is already in the billions of dollars every year. Immediately diverting their resources onto such a new platform might not make the most business sense -- especially in a market that already has several office suites, some of them free, not to mention upcoming open source suites.

Furthermore, the Office code is closely tied to Windows run-time libraries. Either the Office code would have to be restructured for portability or the Windows DLLs would need to be replicated and ported to something like Winelib. Either task is not very trivial or cheap. Corel already took this step with their office productivity suite. Reviews so far haven't commented favorably on the stability of this effort. In most cases, a completely native application performs better than a half-ported one.

If we ignore the business equations and the technical hurdles the mini-Microsoft would face getting a Linux box on the shelf, is having Office running on our desktop good for our OS? Linux has garnered its successes from living in a completely open source environment. In fact, the GNOME desktop was started partially because KDE's QT libraries were initially not open source compliant. It was recognized that having a closed desktop would not be beneficial.

Once Office is ported, Linux business advocacy would certainly be easier. After all, Office is already the gold standard on a overwhelming majority of desktops already. Being able to assure 100% compatibility would be a big selling point to put Linux on the desktop.

However likely it is that Microsoft would free the Office source code now, how likely would it be that after Office is split that the source would be opened? The resulting company would only have one product to sell. How many business managers, especially those raised in a Microsoft culture, are going to agree to something like this?

Having a closed source Microsoft application becoming standard on an open source operating system would be an immense setback. Depending on what regulations and oversights this splinter company would be operating under, it might even be possible for them to bundle their product with their own distribution. Or they could slowly introduce their own desktop environment optimized to run their products. Linux companies such as Red Hat or even Corel would be at a disadvantage.

Clearly, open source office suites will continue to be written, but it will be at least several years before they have all the functionality that is in Microsoft's products. Unfortunately, this means that many businesses will be unwilling to switch to Linux on the desktop. The road ahead should be an interesting journey for the entire industry, especially among platforms such as Linux, where the Microsoft proceedings will have a dramatic effect. It will be an interesting roll of the dice to see whether this effect is positive or negative.

Matt Michie is a Computer Science student living in New Mexico. He maintains a a web site at http://daimyo.org.