Microsoft Office's Desktop Stranglehold

Windows, in all of its forms, is the predominant desktop operating system in many IT environments. So says Dan Kusnetzky, director of worldwide operating environments at International Data Corp. (IDC, Kusnetzky goes on to say this is so because of the software "lock-in" that occurs through the use of Microsoft Corp.’s ( Office software, which runs only on Windows and Macintosh platforms.

"Every company that develops software has lock-ins, or features and capabilities that are only available in their products. And the more they convince people to use these features, the more locked-in they are," Kusnetzky explains. "For example, it’s very difficult for a competitor to read and work with Microsoft’s files because a Word document isn’t just text: It’s a Visual Basic for Applications program. Unless you have a complete VB for Applications runtime environment built into your program, you may not be able to do everything that the end user expects."

It’s conceivable, Kusnetzky says, that many organizations standardize on Windows because of their dependence on Microsoft Office, the productivity solution of choice in more than 90 percent of enterprise workplaces.

It is this type of mentality that represents the most substantial blockage to Linux’s acceptance on the desktop. Because of its stability, security and resistance to breakage, many IT managers want to deploy Linux as a desktop operating system, but are unable to so because of endemic and enterprisewide dependencies on Microsoft Office.

"I think that there are a lot of tools provided by Linux that would make my job easier; and then there are tools provided with Windows that I just have to deal with because Office doesn’t run on Linux," says Jerry Carter, a network manager at Auburn University.

If Linux is to challenge Microsoft on the desktop, the argument goes, it must offer a feature-complete office productivity solution that is interoperable with Microsoft Word and Excel documents.

One such solution is ApplixWare from Applix Inc. (, a distributor of business intelligence and customer relationship management software. In addition, Corel Corp. ( ships its WordPerfect8 word processor for Linux and several other Unix platforms.

To many observers, however, Sun Microsystems Inc.’s ( late August 1999 acquisition of StarDivision’s StarOffice productivity software suite represents the industry’s best hope of breaking Microsoft’s stranglehold on corporate desktops. Sun plans to freely offer StarOffice and tie it into its server-based computing model, which leverages the scalability and availability of Sun’s Solaris Unix platform. In addition to running on Linux and other Unix platforms, StarOffice is available for Windows 9x and Windows NT environments.

According to Kusnetzky, solutions such as ApplixWare and StarOffice are a step toward ensuring interoperability with Microsoft’s Office suite, but he expects such applications can’t and probably won’t be able to offer full interoperability with Office.

"Star Office had this problem prior to Sun’s acquisition of it, because the folks at Star[Division] had not implemented a complete Visual Basic for Applications infrastructure. As soon as they saw a document that had macros in it they couldn’t always handle it. The same is true for Applix and Corel," Kusnetzky explains. "Each [of these vendors] has done a wonderful job of figuring out how to make an interoperable document environment, but because of Microsoft’s software lock-ins, they can’t offer 100 percent compatibility."