Update (19-Sep-2005): I didn't know how prescient I might be at the time. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has made a decision to move to the Open Document Format. Coverage begins here.
Update (25-May-2005): The podcast for this post is up here.
Irony is a wonderful thing. As my OED would define it:
irony n. E16. [L ironia, Gk eironeia, simulated ignorance, ...] ... 3. fig. Discrepency between the expected and the actual state of affairs; a contradictory or ill-timed outcome of events as if in mockery of the fitness of things. ...
Slashdot recently carried the [resurrected] story about the head of Microsoft in the Ukraine being forced to use OpenOffice on Linux to display their Microsoft PowerPoint™ presentation about Shared Source. Sort of takes your breath away, doesn't it. As was pointed out here this is actually an old story (October 2004), however it brings a number of interesting things to mind.
There's lots of debate and opinion on whether or not a Linux desktop is ready for prime time deployment. A year or so ago things looked like they might begin as IBM started trying the subtle and not so subtle game of encouraging enterprises to review their desktops between task workers (could go to a "simpler" desktop) and knowledge workers. That didn't really seem to catch on and sweep 10%-15% of the desktops away to Linux, despite backing analyst reports.
I don't believe however that it's a Linux desktop that will be the truly frightening thing for the Microsoft hegemony. It will be OpenOffice on Windows XP that will cause a revenue slide, a few quarter on quarter losses and the shareholders to react bluntly.
Firefox has given Windows XP desktop users a taste of open source. The average consumer isn't downloading source code and building it from scratch — they're merely downloading the binaries and discovering it's a more than good enough user experience and it isn't as malware prone. (Once I started running Firefox, Adaware SE stopped finding things on my computer.)
OpenOffice on Windows XP becomes an interesting next step. r0ml (who also works at Optaros) talked about maintaining a software portfolio similar to a financial portfolio in his Open Source Business Conference talk on "The Paradox of Choice" in April 2005. The idea is that you might want to spread your software investment across a number of applications that perform the same function to lower risk.
With no licensing fee, it becomes a very inexpensive experiment to load OpenOffice on a large class of workstations in the average enterprise that already pays for Microsoft Office through its Enterprise Agreement. OpenOffice reads Microsoft Office documents in a very direct manner. As not-a-power user, but a regular report and essay writer, I've certainly had no problems with Microsoft Word or PowerPoint documents since switching 8 months ago to OpenOffice. The user interface is familiar enough. It maintains the features I've always used in writing (e.g. footnotes, comment tracking) and there's only been once that I really couldn't figure out how to do something in OpenOffice in a text document. I ended up doing what I wanted in Microsoft Word, pulling the document into OpenOffice and discovering what it looked like there, and discovered I was using the wrong terminology in OpenOffice help searchs to find what I wanted to do. I do all my work in OpenOffice now using OpenOffice document formats, and when someone tells me they require a Microsoft formated document, I simply save the document that way for them. The ability to generate PDF for distribution in OpenOffice is also a god send.
As a legal user of Microsoft Office, it was easy to try OpenOffice. All of the PCs at my house have legal copies, as do my parents and inlaws. I now live in OpenOffice all the time. When I was a Microsoft employee, I had access to the Microsoft Company Store and its steep (order of magnitude) discounts on Microsoft software. I joined the Microsoft Alumni on the way out of the company primarily to maintain access to the Company Store, but I must admit, the membership is looking less attractive all the time if all I want is a couple of XBox games a year.
I can't imagine it would be too difficult for an enterprise to include a small web app on the desktop to collect reports of documents and features that didn't convert cleanly into OpenOffice as part of the experiment to see what features really need to be considered in the Microsoft documents, and how many users actually depend upon those features or macros. Once those numbers become apparent, the enterprise procurement team can then have a different discussion with the Microsoft account exec when they arrive to negotiate the next three year enterprise agreement. Think about it: I need an enterprise agreement for 50,000 copies of Windows XP Pro over the next 3 years, but only 25,000 copies of Microsoft Office — priced accordingly. This support "futures" idea also comes from r0ml's presentation. There is actually an opportunity for Microsoft here — but who wants to bet they don't see it. It's simply not their modus operendi.
Lastly, let's talk about innovation. Microsoft will hammer away at the message around innovation in Microsoft Office and all the incredible work that's coming in the next release. For the moment, let's give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume there really is cool innovation coming in the next release. (I worked there long enough to know how many smart people really are working incredibly hard to deliver very cool technology in the box.)
Sadly, it's NOT about the innovation. Clayton Christensen uses an example in some of his public talks about the new new disk drive technology and innovation. The newest hard drives are incredibly small, and pack fantastic densities of information. The engineering teams delivering them are incredibly innovative, squeezing cooler technology on cooler technology to get the drives even smaller and faster, etc. And in the market, all this innovation is worth about $1 a gigabyte. It doesn't matter how smart those teams are, how hard they worked, how many marriages were destroyed getting to the product release finish line. It's still worth about $1 a gigabyte.
As Christensen points out, it is about delivering a solution to a problem the customer wants solved and is willing to pay money to solve. In the Innovator's Dilemma, he talks about over delivering on functionality, but in the Innovator's Solution he gets into what actually happens in the market at that point. When an encumbent starts over delivering, and customers can't absorb the new innovation fast enough, (and therefore are unwilling to pay for it) a call for standardization comes from the marketplace.
Let's think about that in light of the fact that Microsoft Office has been over delivering since about Office 2000. (How fast did you figure out how to turn OFF smart tags?) And now the standard has arrived. You have to admire Sun on this one. Small nudges in interesting places like hiring Tim Bray and encouraging the EU around data formats and things quietly got done. It must have been horrible to be the Microsoft point person on that standard. On the one hand, you don't WANT the OpenOffice format as the standard (because you'll have to spend time and money to implement it eventually to sell certain government contracts). On the other hand you don't really want to give up your own formats because it's been such a great lock for so long, until you overdelivered.
Well life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
When you think everything's okay and everything's going right
And life has a funny way of helping you out when
You think everything's gone wrong and everything blows up
In your face
Ironic, Alanis Morisette, 1995