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Friday, September 21, 2007

Microsoft vs. competition

Losing its appeal of the European antitrust ruling on Monday was just the first piece of bad news for Microsoft this week. On Tuesday, IBM put a selection of office-suite programs up on the Web for free.

Never mind some landmark court decision on the software giant's longstanding practice of "bundling" new features into Windows - a free Internet-based alternative to Microsoft Office is what could really start some temblors over in Redmond, Washington. Next to Windows, Office is Microsoft's biggest revenue source.

IBM's new Lotus Symphony is word-editing, spreadsheet and slide-show programs you can download free from after registering on the site. The programs, which borrow the Lotus brand name from IBM's best-selling commercial software, work on Windows and Linux operating systems, with a Mac OSX version "planned for the future."

Free office-software suites meant to cut in on Microsoft's dominance have been around for almost a decade. But Tuesday's move means three big brand names - IBM, Google and Sun Microsystems - are allied against the Redmond behemoth in this area. Microsoft Office may be entrenched today, but together, IBM, Google and Sun can do a lot of damage - at least as much as the European Commission can.

How did these three companies fall into step on office software? In some ways, they are united by accident, but mostly they are bound by their shared rivalry with Microsoft

The seeds of Lotus Symphony were planted back in 1994 in Lüneburg, Germany, when Marco Börries started developing StarOffice, an integrated package of software applications, at StarDivision, the company he started as a 16-year-old high school dropout. Five years later, Sun Microsystems bought the company, along with Börries, for $73.5 million and gave away the software for free.

Sun released most of the StarOffice source code to the Internet the next year, and that database became the foundation for a free, grass-roots suite of programs called, which Sun heavily supported. Version 2.0 of OpenOffice was released in 2005, and version 2.3.0 is available for free download today at for the Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Solaris and FreeBSD operating systems. (Sun, in the meantime, started selling a version of StarOffice commercially.)

Google entered the picture in 2006, when it bought a start-up Web-based word processor called Writely and used it as the text-editing element of Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Separately, Google offers the StarOffice programs for free downloading as part of its Google Pack of "specifically selected" software (Windows only).

All of these - Google Docs, StarOffice, OpenOffice and Lotus Symphony - can read documents in the Microsoft Word formats, which is the most important feature for consumers and corporate customers. But because their roots are in the open-source community, their specialty is something heavily promoted by IBM called OpenDocument Format, or ODF, whose underlying coding is designed to be "open" to change.

Why give away valuable software?

As Steven Mills, senior vice president of IBM's software group, told The New York Times's Steve Lohr this week, "There is nothing that advances a standard like a product that uses it."

Microsoft, meanwhile, has an "open" format of its own, called Office Open XML. For the moment, it lacks an official designation as an international standard, but it has something ODF doesn't: Microsoft.

With the arrival of Lotus Symphony, consumers get not just a competitor for Microsoft, but competition within the free office software category itself.

So whatever happed to Marco Börries, the wunderkid star of StarOffice? Today, he is one of the top executives at Yahoo - another ally in the brotherhood against Microsoft.

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