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	This story was printed from Inter@ctive Week,
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The Microsoft-Free Office
By Connie Guglielmo & Charles Babcock, Inter@ctive Week
May 29, 2000 3:18 AM PT

Throughout its decade-long antitrust skirmish with the U.S. government, Microsoft has fervently maintained it is not a monopoly - that there are numerous alternatives to its market-dominating Windows operating system, its Office suite of business applications, and its browser, e-mail and back-office technologies. But can you really run a business in today's high-tech, wired world without relying in some way on Microsoft technology? The answer, according to systems integrators, computer consultants and even Microsoft rivals, is a resounding yes - and no. Why the hedge? Because, they say, business realities are defined by the line between what's possible and what's practical.

Microsoft loyalists routinely offer a bit of advice to consumers who vent anger about the software maker's technology and its aggressive business tactics - tactics recently declared illegal by the federal judge presiding over the antitrust suit brought by the Department of Justice: If you don't like Microsoft or its software, don't use its products.

But "love it or leave it" may be easier said than done when it comes to Microsoft's pervasive technology.

Though the company is correct in asserting that the software industry continues to crank out alternatives to Microsoft products, including its industry-dominating Windows operating system (OS) and Office suite of business applications, the "Microsoft-free" office remains more myth than reality - even among the company's competitors, the group most eager to break free of the software giant's hold.

"I view the non-Microsoft office as the Holy Grail of computing," said Mark Slosberg, vice president of e-business solutions at EpicEdge, a Sun Microsystems-authorized systems integrator that counts among its clients Chevron, Exxon, Federal Express and Monsanto. "Freeing yourself from Microsoft-based PCs on the desktop is difficult to do. It's not practical. Just try to find a non-Microsoft PC when you walk into a computer store today. It's not easy."

What does Microsoft think about the idea that "open"-minded information technology (IT) managers might shun the company's products because they don't want to be locked into the single-vendor approach that Windows and Office entail?

Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan said, "Competition concerns us in this industry because it is fierce and widespread. Companies like Oracle, Sun and several others claim that you don't need anything from Microsoft to run your business, teach your children or utilize the Internet. Sun, Novell, IBM and Oracle want customers to use their proprietary systems, and Microsoft works hard to ensure that our products interoperate with the current IT environments of customers."

Indeed, Dan Fischler, a senior consultant at Information Systems Solutions, a Silicon Valley-based computer consulting and Web development firm, said, "We do have some folks that don't want to use anything with a Microsoft name on it." But, he added, "We try to discourage that because it's not a sound business decision. It's not practical."

But why isn't it practical? After all, consumers can choose to buy desktop systems running Apple Computer's Macintosh OS, Sun's Solaris OS, a variety of versions of the Unix OS, specialized multimedia OSes such as BeOS or even the increasingly popular Linux freeware OS.

In addition to users who genuinely admire and believe in Microsoft technology, the answer, Slosberg and others said, is that a mixture of apathy, ignorance, fear and inertia, coupled with Microsoft's market might, add up to an environment in which Microsoft has become to IT managers in the past decade what IBM was to them in the 1980s: the safe buy.

"The first 10 years I was selling Unix systems, I would go to an IT organization and I'd find one of two kinds of guys" Slosberg said. "One was the open system guy, who wanted to make sure everything was cross-platform and built on industry standards. The other one was the one who didn't make a move without calling their proprietary system vendor, usually IBM. That's where that saying came from - 'No one ever got fired for buying IBM.'

"You still have the same two kinds today: organizations that have an open systems approach and those that never make a move without calling their IT vendor. But in the most recent 10 years, Microsoft has assumed the position IBM had. Today, the easy way to go is with Microsoft," Slosberg said.

The myth of the Office-less office

Microsoft's Windows family of OSes gets the bulk of attention when talk turns to the company's monopoly power. But computer consultants and even Microsoft's competitors acknowledge that today's high-tech office isn't an office without Office. The ubiquitous bundle of so-called productivity applications, dominated by Word, Excel and PowerPoint, was the original office suite, a grouping of increasingly compatible applications that catapulted a collection of also-rans into the de facto standard of business computing.

While experts agreed that users have the freedom to choose between Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser and America Online's Netscape Communications Navigator, or between Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client and Qualcomm's Eudora, they said that choice effectively disappears when it comes to word processing and spreadsheets. That is true despite the fact that Canadian software developer Corel offers the WordPerfect Office suite of business applications for Windows and Linux; Apple offers its Macintosh users the AppleWorks 6 suite; and Sun offers its StarOffice suite of business applications for eight OS languages, including Solaris, Linux, Windows and IBM's OS/2.

Microsoft is a "virtual monopoly" in the desktop applications market. According to research firm International Data Corp., Microsoft Office has more than 90 percent of the Windows market for desktop suites - and an even greater share in the Macintosh market.

And because Word and Excel save files in proprietary formats, users need to have those programs in place - or must use some sort of file translation program - in order to open, read and save documents stored in the Microsoft formats.

"Yes, you can run an office without Microsoft Office. But I don't know if you're gaining anything by doing that," said Jennifer Roback, project manager at Praxis Computing, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm. Roback told the story of one client, a talent agency with 65 people spread between its New York and Los Angeles offices, that opted to buy Macintosh desktop systems. The IT manager chose not to buy Microsoft Office "for $250 per workstation," and instead decided to use the AppleWorks 6.0 applications that came bundled free with the machines.

"What does it get him?" Roback asked. "They'll frequently get a document they can't read because it was saved in Word. They decided to buy one copy of Office so they could open those documents, but now it's one person's job to do that. If you're a law office or any kind of business that creates a lot of documents - and what business doesn't create a lot of documents? - that doesn't make sense. Word is the word processor most people use."

Peter Linde, president of The Linde Group, a Web development and desktop support consultancy in Emeryville, Calif., added "In terms of setting up a Microsoft-free office, it is difficult - and I'll speak primarily from the Macintosh perspective - because of the market dominance of Microsoft products. You'll always run up against a person who has a Microsoft document that you need to share. That problem will decrease as time goes on, and as more and more people use a browser interface and support HTML [HyperText Markup Language] and use Java. But for now, Microsoft Office is the standard."

Fischler, Roback and Linde all noted that there are companies - such as DataViz - that offer file translation software that allows non-Microsoft users to convert Office files so they can be shared with other applications. And users can choose to save their Word and Excel documents in any of a number of other file formats Microsoft offers among its "Save As" options.

But, Fischler said, "Why do it? It's an extra step." If most of the people your company is doing business with are using Word and Excel, he said, then it just makes business sense to be able to exchange files with them without worrying whether the translator will successfully convert all the data in the documents or save them with all the formatting in place. "When we set up a business, we put in what makes sense. It's about tools and getting the job done. Not about religion."

It's precisely that kind of thinking that annoys Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer at Red Hat, a popular Linux distributor. A fervent supporter of open standards, Tiemann said that when he receives a file saved in a proprietary file format - such as Word or Excel - he sends the files back. "It does require extra effort to recognize there are open standards out there that can be used," he said.

Beyond Office

But Word and Excel aren't the only applications that keep users tied to the Windows platform. Numerous computer consultants said, for instance, that Visio 2000, a drawing and diagramming program, is as much a standard to them as Word is to writers and document specialists or Excel is to corporate accounting departments. Visio 2000 has always run solely on Microsoft's OS, nor is that ever likely to change; in January Microsoft acquired Seattle-based Visio in a stock deal valued at $1.5 billion.

"I'm forced to use Windows, even though I might not want to, for a variety of reasons, and one of them is Visio," EpicEdge's Slosberg said. "Visio is a great program. It's drag-and-drop graphics for the rest of us, and it got swallowed by Microsoft. Where is the Visio application - that critical application - that launches Linux into the marketplace? Can someone create something like Visio for Linux? Sure. But we're talking about a well-developed product that has evolved over several years. You don't wave your arms and come up with a Visio-level product."

One Sun systems integrator, who asked not to be identified, said that despite his admiration of Solaris and Linux, he has a Windows-based PC on his desktop because "we use Windows applications to run our business. We have Word to write documents, Visio to diagram, Microsoft Project to lay out our projects, Excel for spreadsheets and Great Plains [Software's apps] for accounting - which only runs on Windows," he said. "You can't get away from Microsoft today on the desktop, because it's difficult since so many applications are developed first - or only - for Windows."

Even Macintosh enthusiasts, who crow about the Mac's reliability, ease of use and lower support costs compared with Windows/Intel-based machines, concede that Windows has an application edge.

"It is true there are applications that come out first for the PC," Linde said. "And there are apps that never come out for the Mac. If you need one of those apps, you could be in trouble if you're trying to build a Microsoft-free office. There are absolutely areas in which - based on the structure of our computing society as it is, and the stranglehold that Microsoft has in terms of mind share and market share - it just makes more sense to use Microsoft technology in certain areas, particularly on the desktop, though there are plenty of Macintosh applications out there for users who take the time to learn the market."

No time like the present

If there's any time to consider building a Microsoft-free office, advocates of alternatives said it is now. Microsoft's competitors have seldom held a stronger hand.

In response to what U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson has determined are monopolistic business practices, the DOJ is urging that the courts split Microsoft into two companies - one to develop and market its applications, the other to produce the OS.

Worms and viruses, meanwhile, have been running rampant through the Windows environment, via Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail clients and Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers. While Windows technology is designed to be relatively easy to develop software for, analysts and Microsoft's competitors said it's also unusually vulnerable to more sinister exploitation. The recent Love Bug worm arrived as an attachment to an e-mail. And when the "ILOVEYOU" subject line induced the recipient to open the attachment, the worm, written in Microsoft Visual Basic, was launched.

Word, Excel and PowerPoint can be easily prompted to run Visual Basic programs hidden in attachments, because Microsoft made Visual Basic the underlying scripting language for its Office applications.

"Why should Microsoft Word be allowed to go through my archived MP3 files or erase kernel files on my machine?" asked open source programmer Chris Dibona, a Linux community evangelist at VA Linux Systems. "These things should be protected by the operating system, and they're not,"

Linux systems, too, are vulnerable to viruses and worms, though Dibona said they can only affect a few user files, not the internal hard drive or system kernel files.

And Microsoft's products also provide a more tempting target, if only because Linux offers a much smaller group of potential victims. Microsoft's Windows OSes - NT/2000, 3.1, 95 and 98 combined - held a 94.6 percent share of the OS market in 1999, according to a survey by market research firm Dataquest GartnerGroup. In comparison, Linux's share didn't even rate a breakout in Dataquest's survey and was lumped in "other."

The damage done by malicious code writers, such as those that created the Melissa worm a year ago or the Love Bug and its variants this month, "is much more serious today" because of the overwhelming pervasiveness of the Windows environment in which such attacks thrive, Red Hat's Tiemann said.

Sam Ockman, president of Penguin Computing, a Red Hat Linux systems builder in San Francisco, added: "If some kid in the Philippines spends five minutes writing a virus and it brings down computers all over the world, is it all his fault? Microsoft is guilty of not having thought through the exposures in the first place."

The management team at start-up worries about the ease with which malicious code can come into a business that is based heavily on Microsoft software. HomeWareHouse, a business based on Linux and Solaris servers, uses Windows on many desktops, but "we've avoided using Microsoft Exchange" e-mail server, said Mark Towfiq, director of engineering at the online building supply and home remodeling service. He said the company decided it would "rather not have Visual Basic scripts running on our servers."

When it comes to server software, Towfiq said, the protection of the open source community's many eyes looking through the code and producing quick patches when a hole is found "gives me a lot more comfort" than depending on a major supplier to acknowledge exposures and produce fixes in its own proprietary code. "If we think there's a bug in Exchange, how much leverage are we going to have with Microsoft?" he said.

Yet, even the most adamant Linux advocates find it difficult to get away from relying on some Microsoft software, particularly Office. With the exception of a few engineers, the 150 employees at HomeWareHouse use Windows on their desktop, and Dan Pederson, the company's management information systems director, laughed when asked what would happen if he replaced them with Linux. "This building wouldn't be a safe place for me to come to work," he said.

That's not because "there's any great love for Microsoft," Pederson added. It's because people have learned Office applications as their workplace tools, and they know they'll become "a lot less productive" if anyone changes them. HomeWareHouse uses 37 Linux machines as Web servers, staging servers, Domain Name System servers and mail servers, which run the Sendmail mail transfer agent instead of Microsoft Exchange. It uses six Sun Solaris machines as database servers and for other core business operations. The company also has four Windows NT servers for such things as running a specialized telephone system application. Despite the heavy reliance on non-Microsoft servers, Pederson conceded that Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program "is nearly indispensable" to HomeWareHouse's operations. "I can't see a way of getting out of [Microsoft's] grasp," he said.

And no Internet business can afford to ignore Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser when they build their Web sites, Pederson added.

Among those who agree is John Ousterhout, author of the open source code scripting language, Scriptics, and CTO at Ajuba Solutions. "It just doesn't make business sense to strive to be Microsoft-free," he said. "You'd take too big a loss in business efficiency."

Part of the reason, Ousterhout said, is that Microsoft used its monopoly in Windows to squeeze out competition in applications. As a result, he said, making yourself 100 percent free of Microsoft applications means "you'd be cutting yourself off from too many people that you need to communicate with. I'm not convinced it's ever going to happen." The fact that the rest of the world uses Windows shouldn't be a barrier to adopting alternatives, other open source code advocates said.

"Everyone is porting applications to Linux, except Microsoft," Penguin's Ockman said.

The Linux advance

Among the software available to run under Linux, often at bargain-basement prices, are Adobe Systems FrameMaker page layout program, Computer Associates International's Ingres II database, IBM's DB2 database system, Inprise/Borland's Interbase database system, Oracle's Oracle8 database and SAP's R/3 Enterprise Resource Planning applications.

Corel launched its WordPerfect Office 2000 suite for Linux in April, along with its own distribution of the OS, Corel Linux. And Sun purchased Star Division, a German business, in 1999 to offer the StarOffice suite with Solaris and as a free download from its Web site.

Darren Davis, vice president of engineering and research at OpenLinux distributor Caldera Systems, said developers associated with the K Desktop Environment development project are producing the K Office suite of applications, which will broaden the choices available under Linux. He has test-driven the K Office suite in its current beta release and found it "amazingly deep," in Microsoft Office-like functionality, he said.

A team of former NeXT Computer and Apple Macintosh user interface developers, meanwhile, is working on Eazel, a new graphical user interface for Linux. Then there's Miguel de Icaza, lead developer of the Gnu Object Model Environment, or Gnome, user interface for Linux, who is working with Nat Friedman and other developers at venture capital-financed Helix Code on an Excel-compatible spreadsheet product for Linux called Gnumeric. Another team is working on an open source replacement for Quicken financial applications, called GnuCash.

And open source company AbiSoft now supplies an office suite that includes the Abi Word processor. David Sifry, CTO at Linuxcare and co-founder of the Bay Area Linux User Group, said he started using Abi Word and likes it. But when it comes to presentation graphics, "I have yet to find a better presentation program than PowerPoint," he said.

Linuxcare holds a support contract with Sun for StarOffice applications on Solaris, but Sifry said neither StarOffice nor Applixware, the desktop productivity suite from Applix is quite far enough along on presentation graphics for Linuxcare itself to adopt them as its standard applications under Linux.

Sifry cited Helix Code's Gnumeric for Linux as a promising replacement for Excel. "If you are concerned with being non-Microsoft, the software is there to do it. But to deal with the compatibility issues with the outside world, there are still a number of Linux applications that are not up to speed yet."

Applix and Sun's StarOffice applications sometimes balk at dealing with Microsoft PowerPoint files, several users said. Red Hat's Tiemann said when he encounters a PowerPoint presentation that doesn't convert well, he urges the sender to substitute "an executive summary."

Although Linuxcare as a company uses Linux on every desktop, Sifry conceded, "We have not been able to run a 100 percent Microsoft-free environment yet. Any company that is 100 percent Microsoft-free is either too small or not facing up to certain issues."

Compatibility among word processing, spreadsheets and presentation graphic programs is the most often cited barrier to adopting Linux desktop applications as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Corel, however, noted that the American Bar Association has certified its WordPerfect 8 word processor as so compatible with Microsoft Word that a document produced with one can be worked on by the other without risk of flaw or changes.

"Customers send me stuff in Microsoft formats all the time," said Brett Person, senior technician at Penguin and co-founder of Slackware Linux. "Corel reads those files really well. The integration so far has been painless." Penguin offers Corel applications on the systems it sells.

Corel markets its applications in a box prominently labeled Corel Linux, but Person said the applications run under any major distribution of Linux, as stated in fine print on the back of the box. Some Linux users say they have not tried Corel applications because they thought they were only available as a bundle with Corel's new distribution of Linux.

"I don't think that's the best strategy for Corel. They should push them as open applications," Penguin's Ockman said. By using Red Hat Linux, Corel applications, Sendmail's mail transfer agent and other Linux software, Penguin is "a 100 percent Microsoft-free" company, Person said. But, Ockman added, "We're a little more hard-core than lots of people. We're not the best example to hold up."

Making translation work

In addition to the growing list of Linux applications, there is an increasing number of alternatives for running Windows applications under Linux using translators or emulators, such as VMware or Virtual Network Computing, a virtual desktop that lets a Windows user view a Linux server. VNC was developed by AT&T at its Cambridge lab in the U.K..

VMware is a virtual machine capable of running other OSes beneath it while providing software mimicry of an Intel 32-bit architecture. "VMware on top of Linux gives us a viable alternative to dual booting," or running both Windows and Linux on the same machine, Linuxcare's Sifry said, and allows him to work in Microsoft PowerPoint while running Linux on his desktop.

There are Windows emulators available through, and Red Hat's Tiemann said Cygwin, from his former company, Cygnus Solutions, runs on top of Linux as a Windows application hosting environment.

Running applications under an emulator or translator imposes a penalty, sometimes a heavy one, experienced users said. However, because VMware mimics the Intel 32-bit architecture and runs both Linux and Windows applications in separate sessions, a VMware system with large amounts of random access memory -128 megabytes to 160 MB - is viewed as providing performance closer to that of native hardware than typical emulation offers, reviewers of VMware have noted.

NetLedger, an accounting application service provider to small business, claimed to be the largest online Linux user of Oracle database systems. "I run my whole organization on Linux," said NetLedger's chief information officer, David Durkee. Yet, he found it impossible to convert end users to Linux desktops. His engineering staff was used to working with development tools from Microsoft under Windows NT, and sales and marketing and other business staffs were trained in Windows applications. "For day-to-day office management, the Linux applications aren't there yet," Durkee said.

It's also clear from these accounts that anyone attempting to steer clear of Windows and Office applications will run into glitches as they attempt to deal with Microsoft-formatted text and files coming in from suppliers, partners and customers. They can get around the problems by learning their substitute applications well or by hosting an alternate Windows environment, "but you have to be incredibly religious to try," Ajuba's Ousterhout warned.

But business isn't about religion. And integrators say smart IT organizations are those that design their businesses around open standards using multiple platforms. "Even if you want to adopt a Microsoft standard, there's no harm to designing to open standards," said Jeffrey Held, CTO at Fort Point Partners, an integrator that has built electronic-commerce sites for Elizabeth Arden and Kmart's new online division. "The only way you can survive in an industry like ours is to give yourself flexibility. If you're writing something that only works on a single platform, on a single OS, you're setting yourself up for trouble. It's seductive, because every vendor tries to lock you in by providing features that you can use only if you do things their way. That's a trap, because you also lock yourself into a system that only works with their technology."

And banking your future on any one vendor is a bad business decision, Held said, because of the speed with which technology changes. "The key is not products, but standards," he said. "The thing to remember is that products and vendors come and go, but standards hopefully stay around."

But even Held acknowledged there are official standards - such as those endorsed by major standards organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force - and so-called "industry standards" such as Microsoft Office and Sun's Java development language, which have been massively adopted. Navigating through the standards, Held said, requires more thought "than simply blindly doing whatever a vendor tells you to do.

"The point is that if you hang your business on some standards and take an open system approach, you have a better chance of being able to ride out the turbulence in the industry rather than being left with one single vendor or product," Held said. "By adopting standards, you can avoid being trapped in a dead end" - whether that end is Windows, he added, or some other platform.