While Microsoft has had some 20 years to make Office what it is today, most industry analysts say that new open-source contenders, such as OpenOffice, measure up reasonably well against Redmond's suite. But they also say that while these suites do have most of the features of Microsoft Office, they lack certain advanced capabilities that make all the difference.
Clearly, Microsoft continues to define the office space and likely will dominate office software for the foreseeable future. But an interesting question to ask is whether a group of volunteers -- however large -- can ever hope to measure up against Microsoft's millions of dollars. Gates and crew have poured countless programmer hours into Office over the past 20 years, while OpenOffice and other alternative product groups consist almost entirely of volunteers. Is the idea so far-fetched that a group of volunteers can compete successfully with Microsoft?
Because the two office suites are not on the same playing field in terms of development funding, it is difficult to equate Microsoft's programmer dollars against the time provided by open-source volunteers. But there are plenty of those in the open-source community who are willing to give that comparison a shot.
One of those is Jacqueline McNally, marketing project lead for OpenOffice.org. "When volunteers give freely of their efforts and time, it is often mistaken that we don't have value because we don't appear on a balance sheet," said McNally from her office in Perth, Australia. "It would be an interesting exercise if it were possible to put a value on the time contributed to OpenOffice, considering there are thousands of contributors providing millions of hours."
While there are of course proponents and detractors on both sides of the line, many analysts have identified open-source software and nonproprietary formats as building up strong momentum against Redmond. "The growing awareness of the benefits of open file formats and transparency are driving interest in OpenOffice, KDE, Gnome, and other alternatives to a Microsoft solution," said Stacey Quandt, research director for security solutions and services for the Aberdeen Group.
However, while there are plenty of proponents, the open-source movement does have legitimate detractors. One is Michael Goulde, analyst of software infrastructure for Forrester Research. According to him, the coding for open-source products often provides a built-in drawback. By way of example, he points to OpenOffice. "The actual code for the first version was spaghetti," he said. "The code for 2.0 isn't much better. This is going to be a bear to continue to evolve, and they should probably start from scratch. It's no accident that in Forrester surveys OpenOffice usage barely shows up."
Does the existence of these alternative software solutions pose any kind of challenge to Microsoft? We posed that question at several levels of Microsoft's vast media-management army along with requests to discuss the open-source phenomenon. After promises for responses, Microsoft's media messengers said the appropriate corporate responders were all traveling and could not be reached.
A key official for the KDE organization, developers of one of the most popular desktop environments for the Linux operating system, was happy to comment. "I cannot speak for Microsoft, but I think that the KDE project has quite a bit of pride over the KDE platform," said Ian Reinhart Geiser, developer on the KDE project and the organization's U.S. representative. "I think this pride is helping inspire us to market KDE outside of the Linux arena."
Geiser noted that the interesting thing about the open-source model is that the biggest customers tend to be the developers involved in the projects and who are also working at corporations that end up using the software. In this sense, the open-source movement is not unlike grassroots political movements that seek to transform organizations from within. "I think these developers may be a challenge (to Microsoft) because communities are usually made up of individuals versus complete companies," said Geiser. "I think the big focus on marketing for KDE is to grow beyond these communities and market to institutions such as businesses and schools."
Others close to the issue see the open-source model as being more responsive to the marketplace, something that Microsoft's corporate structure tends to restrict. "Open-source communities or projects, including OpenOffice, can more quickly respond or be proactive than large corporations," said McNally. "Also, as an international project, contributors and end-users have the opportunity to participate in myriad ways, based on language or region. Our volunteers are our most valuable resource."
Will the community support that drives open-source products ultimately have a larger impact on proprietary software makers like Microsoft in terms of their own product development? Some industry watchers are beginning to think so. What the volunteer model does is to drive the cost of the software to zero, noted Forrester's Goulde. This cost competition is starting to have an affect even on vendors participating in open-source development, who find that to make money on these products, they must raise the cost of their services. "That cost is actually pushed up into the services," said Goulde.
Some think that the greatest pressure on the developers of proprietary software will continue to come from innovation. That certainly seems to be the case with Microsoft's quick turnaround in deciding to overhaul its long-stagnant Internet browser now rather than wait to release a new version in Windows Vista. Much of that marketing decision resulted from the overwhelming success of the open-source browser Firefox, with its tabbed interface and numerous user-configurable enhancements.
The Gnome desktop environment is another example of how open-source communities can force programming innovation. "I think there are many examples of how a software monoculture can cause the overall quality of software to deteriorate," said KDE.org's Geiser. "I think both KDE and Gnome are also becoming successful enough that even Microsoft is being forced to try to innovate again."
He said Gnome is a good example of this push for innovation because it was started when the developers did not agree with where KDE was going. "Over the years we have both inspired great innovations to each other, making the desktop platforms on Linux much more feature-complete than they where two or three years ago," he said.
Aberdeen researcher Quandt pointed to the current situation with the Massachusetts Legislature as the latest battleground for one of the most visible fights between open source and proprietary programs. At stake is Microsoft's support for proprietary technology becoming a potential hindrance to information access. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts plans to phase out Microsoft Office and replace it with OpenOffice, which supports the OpenDocument Format, she said. Adobe, KOffice, Apache, Sun, and several other major vendors and groups support the OpenDocument format.
"The marketing challenge for Microsoft is that while its [forthcoming] XML implementation is royalty free, it is closed-source software and does not address the issue of transparency and access to information that government agencies are seeking," she said. "As the industry logic for open file formats extends to other vertical segments, this will drive more organizations to consider the long-term implications of access to digital assets, and the costs of staying the course with a proprietary solution."
This move by Massachusetts, however, is inherently flawed because the OpenOffice programs do not have the capabilities for disabled workers that the Microsoft Office environment has, noted Laura DiDio, senior analyst at the Yankee Group. "Disabled workers will continue to use Microsoft Office and it will cost taxpayers money to maintain both programs throughout the state's offices."
DiDio said companies, as well as the Massachusetts legislature, have to consider the hidden costs associated with adopting OpenOffice. These hidden costs include third-party tools, warranties, I.T. staffing costs to retrain support givers, and the expense of implementing security measures that work with the alternative applications.
Another issue underlying the abandonment of proprietary applications for open-source products is the recovery time, DiDio said. For instance, she said, it takes Linux 30 percent longer to recover from a security attack in contrast to Windows. The documentation for open-source applications often is poor, she said, and the support is nowhere near as robust as it is with Microsoft. "Thus, administrators will spend much more time looking for the cure," she said.
Open source is continuing to expand because it is easier to follow than to lead, asserted Goulde, who pointed out that quite a bit of open-source software mimics capabilities that are in proprietary products. It does the same with technologies that have become commoditized. Why? Because that is the easy part, Goulde noted, adding, "Who wants to pay for commodity technology anyway?"
Other factors are driving the gains made by open-source vendors against the Microsoft giant. "The success of office productivity alternatives to Microsoft is about ease of access to information, lower costs, and not being locked in to a single I.T. vendor," said Quandt.
The level of competition between proprietary and open-source vendors often is shaded by one's involvement in the marketing challenge. For instance, Al Campa, vice president of marketing for JasperSoft, sees the fight moving away from the Microsoft battle front. His company develops JasperReports, a suite of open-source reporting and analytics software products. According to his perspective, open-source products have replaced Microsoft as the lowest common denominator in computing. "Microsoft is trying to make plays in both markets, but isn't nimble and attractive enough to overcome open source's popularity," Campa said.
But, despite this kind of enthusiasm echoed in every sector of the open-source movement, the battle for open-source supremacy is far from over. However, as Campa pointed out, free is compelling. "Software makers will continue to have a hard time competing with something that is free," he said. But even in the open-source marketplace, free does not always work. "Today, people want to know that there is documentation, product support, and durability," said Campa. "They also want to know that it is safe."
To solve that marketing quandary, JasperSoft, like many companies creating open-source software, makes two versions available to customers: an open-source free version and another for-fee version that comes with more advance features and support.
The bottom line, said Campa, is for companies to have a strategy. "There is not a software company out there that doesn't have an open-source strategy," said Campa. "You can see this with Oracle, SQL, IBM, and others, but every major software company also has to focus on a commercial plan, or they won't become a company with a profit."
Microsoft has a hand in open source and traditional open-source developers have been making money selling services on top of their open-source products. It is this business conundrum that might ultimately make the question about proprietary software versus open-source software moot, as the lines between both camps become increasingly blurred.