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IBM set to start Office wars 2003

By Brent Sutherland

Friday 9th May 2003

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Later this year Microsoft expects to ship the next version of its all-conquering Office Suite. I use the term "all-conquering" as conventional wisdom is that Microsoft has over 90% of the desktop productivity application market and that must continue ­ well, maybe.

Office 2003 will this time have a new set of challenges to overcome to persuade IS managers and financial controllers to stump up to upgrade everyone, particularly as many seem perfectly happy with Office XP, Office 2000, or even Office 98.

Of course, those organisations that bought into Microsoft's revenue in advance licensing scheme, otherwise known as Software Assurance, will get the upgrade whether they want it or not, having already paid for it last year. For this they will get Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher, Business Contact Manager, XML support, information rights management content creation and authoring, and new Microsoft application InfoPath.

Well, doesn't that all make you just drool with anticipation.

Leaving aside the cynicism over Office Suite bloat, I'm sure there will be nuggets of really useful improved functionality in all that ­ InfoPath, for instance, improves the ease of sharing information from a number of document types by using the XML capabilities to be provided in Office.

But does Microsoft really think every user needs all this stuff? Most need Outlook, Word and Excel at most ­ and usually only the most basic functionality in those. That is why, apart from sheer bloody mindedness over Microsoft's high-handed approach to licensing, so many organisations are looking to consider more carefully what options, if any, they want to pursue for desktop productivity software.

Many have been seeing the keen pricing of Sun Microsystems' Star Office (whether on Windows or Linux) or the open source OpenOffice as attractive, albeit with understandable caution about committing to Linux (although every month the arguments against that reduce).

A recent announcement from IBM on the next version of its WebSphere portal product puts a whole new set of options into play, which potentially other vendors could adopt, giving companies new choices. But first, it is worth reflecting on the increasing importance of portal products within the IT environment.

Generically, portal is a term referring to a website gateway to a consolidated set of information and access to other sites. Yahoo! was one of the first general purpose portals, for example.

As organisations build intranets for staff (and sometimes customer) access, they find the size and complexity quickly becomes difficult to maintain and challenging for users to find the information they want. A number of vendors therefore have developed products to support this, with each providing varying capabilities for indexing and organising information, providing access to it by classifications and search, allowing personalisation of the experience to the user's needs, supporting collaboration, and access to or integration of applications. IBM's portal product is a component of its WebSphere web services and application integration product.

For WebSphere Portal Version 5 due to ship mid-2003, IBM is including basic presentation, word processing and spreadsheet capabilities as lightweight, browser-based components. This means as you need the functionality, it is there, from your browser, without having to leave the portal to fire up another application such as MS Office.

That "stickability" ­ the extent to which you can do everything you need to do without leaving the portal ­ is one of the most desirable attributes of a good portal (whether internal within an organisation, or public like Yahoo!). WebSphere Portal documents will be compatible with the MS Office proprietary file formats, so Office documents will also be able to be viewed in the portal.

IBM is of course able to do this relatively easily through its ownership of the Lotus SmartSuite desktop applications suite, one of the losers in the previous office wars to Microsoft.

So if you are a WebSphere Portal user, why would you want MS Office for most of your staff who only need the basic functionality? We don't know yet how much that "basic" functionality really is, although one report puts it at 80% of what most people use.

Now, while it might have been relatively easy for IBM to do this, how might other portal vendors react? Well, it may be that Microsoft has offered those vendors a helping hand by XML-enabling Office 2003, making it far easier for anyone to share and integrate Office documents with other applications, although it might be expected that Microsoft's XML schemas will have their own quirks to them.

Another approach may be through OpenOffice as its licence apparently provides access to Microsoft proprietary formats. Whatever happens with these, it appears this may be the verge of a new era for desktop productivity applications. The promise of web services and computing on demand, at least for those with high-speed access to an application server, is that you access and use only what you need, when you need it, and pay accordingly.

If this is realised, it may be a serious challenge to Microsoft's Office model that is so financially lucrative at 51% of profits for the six months ended December 2002 (from 29% of revenue).

Brent Sutherland is an independent IT consultant and can be contacted at brent.sutherland@ gofers.co.nz

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