TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Can Open Source Defeat Microsoft?

Can Open Source Defeat Microsoft?

Jack M. Germain (
Thu, 4 May 2006 14:29:23 -0500

Jack M. Germain,

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 "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."

Competition Ongoing

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

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."

Community Pressure

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'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.

Massachusetts Rebellion

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

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.

Success Factors

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

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.

Copyright 2006 NewsFactor Network, Inc.

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