The transition away from Microsoftness

It has been months now and I'm still receiving letters about my first rant. The basic thrust of the rant is that Linux developers should be focusing more on innovation than on mimicking what is already on Windows. I stated what I thought were good arguments, and I had many more that wouldn't fit into the space available for my column.

Most readers applauded that column. Some disagreed, and they had some pretty good arguments, too. The best argument revolved around desktop productivity software. They argue that Linux office suites must mimic Microsoft Office to some degree, but mostly with respect to document format. It is undeniable that most business desktop users are running Microsoft Office. It will be impossible to woo these people away from Windows and Microsoft Office unless a Linux suite can make the transition away from Microsoft Office an easy one. You can't do that unless the Linux office suite can read and write all those legacy documents seamlessly.

Put another way, the only way a Linux office suite can beat Microsoft Office is to (essentially) be Microsoft Office, at least until the the Linux office suite has gained enough market share and momentum to unseat Microsoft Office. This is an excellent argument, though not a perfect one.

Let's go over a little history. Once upon a time, WordPerfect owned the word processor market and Lotus 1-2-3 owned the spreadsheet market. They had no credible competition. Then one day, we woke up, and Microsoft Office had taken over the world. Okay, so it didn't take a single day, but it sure felt like it at the time.

How did Microsoft accomplish this mighty feat? Did Microsoft make its products so much like WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 that the transition was seamless? No. Microsoft added lots of compatibility features in its products to make the transition from WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 less painful, but the transition was in now way seamless. Word never worked like WordPerfect (to the dismay of many), and Excel never worked like Lotus 1-2-3. Microsoft provided some similarities, but is far more similar in look and feel to Microsoft Office than Word and Excel were to WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3.

I can sum up the way Microsoft beat the competition in just a few words. Microsoft won the market by leveraging its virtual monopoly on the desktop. Microsoft could co-develop its office products and Windows to play nicely. The competition couldn't. This is one reason why WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 couldn't make the transition to Windows easily. The developers weren't privy to the APIs (and their quirks) as early as Microsoft, and the WordPerfect and Lotus developers couldn't tweak the Windows API in order to make their products run better. There were other factors, too. For example, Microsoft sat on enough cash that it could undercut the competition until it won the market.

No pain, no gain

Here's the moral of the story. Microsoft did not provide 100% backward compatibility with existing WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 documents. Microsoft did not provide perfect look and work-alikes to WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Granted, Microsoft had the edge in integration and (to a degree) stability, because Microsoft owned the API. But overall, Microsoft did not win the market by providing applications that were superior to WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. I would argue that the WordPerfect of 10 years ago is in many ways superior to Microsoft Word today, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that to one extent or another, people were willing to "downgrade" from some of features of their favorite applications, retrain their users, and suffer the transitional difficulties in order to migrate to Microsoft Office.

In short, history shows that people do suffer transitions. They do retrain. They do migrate from one document format to another. While pain may not be necessary, people are willing to suffer pain in order to get enough gain.

Therefore no Linux office suite has to "be" Microsoft Office for any period of time in order to displace Microsoft Office in the market.

What have we learned?

So what will it take for a Linux office suite to displace Microsoft Office? One or both of the following:

  1. Linux has to gain a virtual monopoly on the desktop
  2. The Linux office suite has to be compelling enough to motivate people to migrate away from Microsoft Office

Linux has arrived on the desktop. There's no reason why anyone needs to run Windows. But let's face it. Linux won't monopolize the desktop anytime soon. So there's no way to leverage a desktop monopoly to get people to switch away from Microsoft Office.

However, there are ways to make an office suite compelling enough to draw people away. Here are those factors that I find compelling (your mileage may vary):

  1. The office suite runs equally well on Windows and Linux to ease a transition
  2. The office suite looks and functions (UI, reads/writes documents) enough like Microsoft Office to take most of the pain out of migration
  3. The office suite avoids or corrects all the design errors in Microsoft Office
  4. The office suite provides compelling innovative features that you can't find in Microsoft Office

We already have a couple of good office suites that satisfy items 1 and 2. runs as well on Windows as it does Linux (some might say it runs as badly on both platforms, but that's a matter of tolerance and taste). EIOffice runs quite well on both Windows and Linux. Both products read Microsoft Office documents well enough to make a transition possible with only minimal pain.

That leaves us with points 3 and 4. These are the points that motivated the original rant that drew both praise and criticism. The most compelling feature of is that it is free. Beyond that, duplicates many of the brain-dead design errors you find in Microsoft Office. This is not the way to draw people away from Microsoft Office. You draw people away from Microsoft Office by eliminating those features that Microsoft Office users find frustrating, and providing features that Microsoft Office users wish they had.

It is easier to point to what EIOffice did right than pinpoint the flaws in EIOffice made it ridiculously easy to create live links between documents and document types. If you want to plug the result of a spreadsheet calculation into a document or presentation, all you have to do is "copy" the spreadsheet cell and "paste as link" into the document or presentation. Once you create the link, it is nearly impossible to break it. You can cut the formula in the spreadsheet and paste it to another location. You can add rows or columns so that it moves the location of the formula. It doesn't matter. You can change the data in the spreadsheet such that the results of the formula change. EIOffice maintains the link and instantly updates the results everywhere.

At the time I wrote the rant (and as far as I know this is still true today) there is no easy way to create live links in or Microsoft Office. When you do create live links, they aren't nearly as robust.

Something you can't live without

The key here is that once you start using the live links in EIOffice, the linking becomes a feature you can't live without. This alone would provide a compelling enough reason to migrate away from Microsoft Office. Unfortunately, Evermore Software (the company that produces EIOffice) isn't pushing its product well enough to give me hope that enough people will try EIOffice, get hooked, and adopt it. And there's the issue that EIOffice, while a bargain by any standards, isn't free. And it isn't open source. These may be reasons why EIOffice will never replace Microsoft Office, but these issues do not detract from my point - that EIOffice had the right idea by offering innovative ideas and avoiding the problems inherent in the Microsoft Office design.

Ironically, EIOffice is an almost perfect duplicate of Microsoft Office in terms of the user interface. So Evermore Software is focusing a lot on taking the pain out of migration. But I still think its most compelling feature is its approach to live linking.

That is why I stand by my original assertion. Linux developers should be working on imitaing what Evermore Software did. Sure, minimalize the pain of migration. But focus on avoiding the pitfalls of Microsoft office, and on providing the compelling features that make people want to use the Linux office suite instead of Microsoft Office. Instead of prompting people to say "It's free, and it's good enough", make people say "It blows away Microsoft Office and, oh, by the way, it's free, too."

Do that, and you'll find that people will migrate despite the minor incompatibilities in user interface and file formats.



Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.


Nicholas Petreley's picture

Lotus 1-2-3 owned the spreadsheet market until Windows became a viable graphical desktop. People migrated from DOS to Windows in a big way, and they wanted to run Windows apps, not DOS apps in a DOS window.

The first version of Lotus 1-2-3 on Windows was almost impossible to use. It spent more time swapping than running. Meanwhile, Excel ran just fine on Windows because Microsoft owned BOTH. Microsoft had a unique advantage in being able to coordinate the development of Excel (and Word, etc.) with the development of Windows so that all these products could be released almost simultaneously, and run well together. Nobody else had that advantage.

Whether or not you liked Excel better than Lotus 1-2-3 is not the issue. The market belonged to Lotus. It takes a compelling reason to switch from Lotus to Excel. Microsoft gave everyone that compelling reason by making it nearly impossible for Lotus 1-2-3 to run as well as Excel when Windows started to take off as the default platform. They made it easier to switch by supporting Lotus 1-2-3 files and even macros (to a degree, anyway). But the main reason people switched is because everyone was moving to Windows, and the legacy DOS apps didn't run as well on Windows as Word, Excel, etc.

I think why Lotus is loosing

Anonymous's picture

I think why Lotus is loosing to Microsoft is because Lotus management (at that time) never really decide to fully support Windows, while Microsoft is deeply serious about promoting Windows, and bringing out some of their best Windows product (including Excel) to make the "new" platform popular.

When Windows eventually become the de facto winning platform, Lotus 123 for DOS is left in the dark, while the Lotus 123 for Windows arrive in the market simply too late. By the time Lotus 123 for Windows (finally) arrive, people already fall in love with Excel.

My 2 cents. :-)

Please stop pushing freedom-restricting software

AKosmin's picture

Why the hell is LJ pushing ElOffice? Has LJ actually become one of these "Linux Propaganda" rags that only knows 1 definition of the word "free"? Anything less than a public apology will result in me immediately canceling my subscription.

I seriously have to wonder if this trash would have been printed when Don was keeping an eye on things over there.

Adam Kosmin

Please learn to read

Anonymous's picture

> Why the hell is LJ pushing ElOffice? Has LJ actually become
> one of these "Linux Propaganda" rags that only knows 1
> definition of the word "free"?

If you would bother to learn to read and had actually read Nick's article you wouldn't even be asking these ridicules questions. Only a fool would even remotely think that this article was in any way pushing any specific software at all.

> Anything less than a public apology will result in me
> immediately canceling my subscription.

Hopefully you have canceled your subscription. Having someone like you even remotely connected to the Linux community is damaging enough. Please go far away and stay there. Your kind of zealotism© is doing nothing but harming Linux & FLOSS.


Nicholas Petreley's picture

I really have to wonder if you actually read the article.

OOo's compelling advantage is ODF

Kaj Kandler's picture

Hi there,
I'm not sure if you are advocating for the Open Source, Free Software community to emulate the bad business practices of Microsoft in exploiting their virtual monopoly and driving competition out of business by undercutting their distribution channels?

One key to Microsoft Office's success was, as you stated, the secret integration between Office and the OS (where they had a very strong position). The other key was that they had a virtual monopoly on the distribution channel through pre-loading with new PCs. You might remember that at the time MS strong armed PC manufacturers to bundle the OS and Office suites with every new PC. So from the standpoint of a new PC buyer it was "for free" and meant spending extra money to buy one or more packages and also to install them and support them separately. So convenience and monopolistic tactics won over features and compatibility. By the way, the office suite idea was novel at the time as well and best executed by MS, just to give them credit.

I don't think that a single convenience feature such as "strong" links would win me over from one proprietary package to another (EIOffcie). That said, has already the compelling feature that makes it superior to MS Office. It is the support for Open Document Format (ODF) or ISO 26300.

You might not have realized it, but not only the State of Massachusetts has a problem with long term storage of electronic documents that are so prevalent in an office environment. You can't read an 20 year old Wordstar document these days (even if the storage media, i.e.tape, is perfectly readable). Non of the current packages does support it. You can't solve the problem by keeping the old packages around, because they won't install on the new OS (16 bit --> 32 bit --> 64 bit --> ...). You can't keep the old OS around, because it won't install on the new hardware (see above). By the way, the old software won't play well with the new printer either. And building a virtual museum of old technology artifacts that even has to work just in case someone needs access to an older document is not the direction we want to go anyway. We want new and old documents accessible through the Internet and quickly.

According to the State of Massachusetts, only an open and free (as in speech) document format can guarantee into the future that you have access to you actual document. It must be open and documented, so anybody can write a program against it. It must be free so nobody can prevent you from doing so, just because they want to leverage certain monopoly effects. (OOo) uses ODF as its default format and is the package with the largest installed base for supporting this format. It certainly is not a short term convenience feature, but it will com in handy if you want to review your high school writings or your master thesis from you arm chair in retirement. And it sure is essential if your grandson wants to research the title to his grandfathers goldmine.

As you mentioned OOo is a product that can not leverage monopolies nor has it to in order to undercut the price of the competition. And as free (as in speech) software you can always do something about the missing killer feature, implement it or organize funding for its implementation. You say that is so hard? Look at what a couple of guys do with NeoOffice.

Just my five cents.


No way

Nicholas Petreley's picture

I'm not sure if you are advocating for the Open Source, Free Software community to emulate the bad business practices of Microsoft in exploiting their virtual monopoly and driving competition out of business by undercutting their distribution channels?

Not at all! My story was simply to point out that because Microsoft got away with such practices, people DID go through the pain of migration. THe fact that people WILL go through the pain of migration invalidates the argument that the only way to get people to use free software alternatives to Microsoft Office is to make the transition seamless (read and write MS Office documents perfectly, provide macro compatibility, etc.) While I think it would be GREAT if free software alternatives could read and write MS Office documents perfectly, I simply don't see that as THE requirement for getting people to migrate. I think if free software alternatives are compelling enough on their own merits, people will do whatever they have to do in order to migrate, given even the current (rather mediocre) ability of free software alternatives to read/write/present MS Office docs.

WordStar files

WVCRCavies's picture

WordPerfect 12 for Windows can retrieve and save files in the following WordStar versions:
WordStar 3.31
WordStar 3.4
WordStar 4.0
WordStar 5.0
WordStar 5.5
WordStar 6.0
WordStar 7.0
WordStar 2000 1.0
WordStar 2000 2.0
WordStar 2000 3.0

I guess I'm strange, but I

Anonymous's picture

I guess I'm strange, but I don't really care if Linux takes over anything. I just want to be able to use it myself. I'd be perfectly content with a world in which everyone else used MS-Office but stored their files in the OpenDoc format.

Lately, I've been using an OS X program called WriteRoom to do most of my writing. I'd probably use Ulysses if I weren't so cheap. This despite the fact that I use Linux for just about everything else. To me, these programs show that a lot of the conventional wisdom about productivity software is just wrong, or at the very least, that one size doens't fit all.

WriteRoom is simple, and clean, and a lot better for many types of writing than MS-Office/OpenOffice. The basic idea of Ulysses shows that they stepped back and competely rethought what they were doing. It's an editor that separates composing text from presenting it, and which gives you solid tools for managing large projects.

Again, I don't care about what other people use, and honestly, if I wanted to run MS-Office, I'd run XP and MS-Office, and be done with it. It's on my box, I can boot into it if I want. I run Linux because I like it better -- I like the command prompts, and my scripts, and configurations stored in text files.

There's not that much point to a clone of Windows. The money for the lincenes isn't such a big deal, in the scheme of things. Open file formats are more important, and I guess I can see an argument for making a desktop just like Windows, with apps just like Windows apps, only without any lock in or proprietary formats.

But honestly, I'd rather be part of a platform community in which someone sees MS-Word and responds with a Ulysses, not one in which we respond with a clone.

I don't hate Windows and Microsoft enough to feel that need to take it all away from them. But I don't like Windows enough to want to run it, either. If I did, I would.

I'm not sure I get it.

Nicholas Petreley's picture

You just want to be able to use Linux, and your example is that you are content with an OS X word processor? ;)

" I don't really care if

Anonymous's picture

" I don't really care if Linux takes over anything. I just want to be able to use it myself."

Amen, sibling. FOSS advocates have two primary, unrelated goals: the first one is user and developer freedom, restoring competition to the computer market and giving customers actual choices; the second is converting windoze users to FOSS. I don't care at all what other people do, that's their business. Though there are times when I think it would be lovely if Microsoft and all of its idiot willfully-ignorant users would suffer some sort of consquences for polluting the Internet because they're too lame to keep out of botnets and open proxies, like big fines or beatings with sticks.

Trying to force people who barely understand how to use a mouse to convert to Linux is a waste of time. Computers are complex power tools; that's like trying to convert barely-competent scissors users to chainsaws. Let 'em have their Windows, and let us have what we want, and send Ballmergates to jail for racketeering, and life will be good.


tktim's picture

I use OOo under Windows. Still wish it would have better fuller Pivot/Cross Taps. Pivots was something that just blew us away at work. Pivots are a wonder tool. So easy to learn and use. Quick results. They almost eliminate the need for an Access/dBase type program. Quattro Pro was light years ahead of Excel at one point in time. I've used Linux on desktops for years. (RH/Fedora) I changed out good hardware to replace it with new hardware that works with Linux. Now I gone exclusively to a laptop. A major brand but the lowest cost ($500-$600), which is more than enough for my needs. I have wireless DSL and a wireless printer. Problem can't easily get wireless or the modem which I would only use in an emergency to work. I've tried a lot of live distros and install a few. I given up because I don't want to invest the time anymore to jump through all these hoops to get the hardware to work. Just don't have the time any more. Still have a dual boot system but only use the Windows side. I no longer recommend non geeks switching to Linux because I know I could never help get the various hardware to work without major effort. I know things have come a long way but it's still not easy. I know the hardware companies are the problem, but most people don't care, all they know is it doesn't work. Getting average people to use Linux at home I think has more to do with hardware ease of use, plug and play, than any applications at the moment. My idea of Linux innovation is a Linux software module or a Linux chip that works with almost any hardware. Instead of companies writing from scratch new hardware drivers Linux would just give them a Linux/Windows driver that is almost done for free that works with the Linux module. Why would a company write there own driver if give one for free that work in both worlds, Linux and Windows. Linux needs a “Designed for Linux

What about freedom?

Branko Majic's picture

I have noticed one peculiar thing, Mr. Petreley: you don't care if the software is free or not! You only care about productivity! To be honest, I can't understand this kind of view coming from someone who is using GNU/Linux. I didn't switch to using GNU/Linux because I thought it was "more productive", it was beacue I was freaked out that someday my PC will be in complete control of some gigantic corporation! As one of my buddies noticed, when I install a M$ Window$, I don't control anything. Billy is the one who does. I don't control the hard-disk, he does. Why? Because I don't know what's the Windows doing to it. It's rampaging, whirling the thing around, but I don't know what it is doing. Sure, I ASK it to do something, but how can I be sure that it'll do the thing I asked it to, or that it won't do something else too? I don't. THAT'S the point that we, the free software users and developers, must make. IT'S ALL ABOUT FREEDOM. When someone's civic rights get stamped on, there are a lot of people who complain about that and call for action, and quite often this has a major influence on general population. That's something we also must do - warn people about the dangers which lie proprietary software. Also, you mentioned the EIOffice. I haven't used it, but it has a major flaw: IT ISN'T FREE. Even if M$ Office users switch to it, what guarantees that the company making the EIOffice won't go the same way the M$ did. If it does, then we are at the beginning of the road. We changed nothing. The system remains the same, only the exploiter changes.
I'm not trying to say that what folk are doing is good. I myself have been pretty annoyed when I wrote a 15-page document with lots of math formulas, and then I couldn't change the font size in those formulas all at once. But with, at least we HAVE a chance of changing it, forking the current code. M$ won't try to change the program for people's needs, they will try to change the people for their own program's sake. And you know what? You don't like it, change it! Or at least throw in a good suggestion to the developers who are doing the work. If your idea is good, mail it to me, and if I like it too, we will both suggest a change to the programmers.