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MS Office for Linux – dream or nightmare?

Our paranoia correspondent considers how Redmond could use a port to retain its hold

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The MS Office Linux port story our good friends at ZD floated last week might seem like pretty desperate stuff, but if you think about it, it's possible - at least in some parallel universe. And the obstacles are probably more political than technical. If you focus on the way Microsoft develops for Windows you see little but obstacles to a Linux port of Office. Office for Windows is deeply entangled in the operating system, so shifting it to another operating system would be tricky and expensive. Microsoft's internal development resources are meanwhile at full stretch (even more so than usual, given the amount the company currently has on its plate), and that makes the port even less plausible. Even if Microsoft decided to do it, then the outcome might well be a small, under-resourced project team that kicked it around for a year or so until the plugs were pulled. The case for the Linux port is being supported by Microsoft having already had a stab at a Java implementation of Office, but actually, that could more properly be interpreted as evidence against. Java Office turned out to be a small, under-resourced project that Microsoft wasn't really interested in, so it got canned - go figure. But you could look at it another way - why is it necessary to start from Windows, when Microsoft already has developers producing Mac applications? Avie Tevanian's performance at the antitrust trial hasn't exactly helped relationships between Apple and Microsoft, but MS remains committed to keeping Office for the Mac up to snuff, so the Mac Office team is going to stay in business for at least the foreseeable future. Financially it might make sense to add Linux development to this part of the operation, and technically it would be a lot simpler than trying to start from ground zero. You might also see some Apple-MS synergy from such a project. Apple has been playing discreet footsie with Linux for a while now, but given his inclinations, Steve Jobs is probably just as keen to figure out how to tame Linux as Bill Gates is. Microsoft's need to find a way to deal with Linux also - maybe - provides some support for the notion of a port. Redmond could be shooting itself in the foot by moving the industry standard applications suite to Linux (any project would certainly face heavy opposition from inside Microsoft), but what other options are open to the company, if Linux continues to grow? Last year's leaked Halloween memos (Earlier Story) gave some indication of how Microsoft thinking might develop vis-a-vis the Linux question. Winning hearts, minds and momentum among open source developers was one aspect of the - admittedly somewhat sketchy - strategy, while insinuating Microsoft's own standards into Linux was another. These objectives seemed utterly unattainable at the time, considering the Linux world's likely reaction to half an olive branch from Redmond, but Microsoft's thinking will have developed in the interim, and the company might be starting to consider that Office is the most viable platform to deal with. Like it or not, MS Office is the productivity standard for business, so the people trying to get Linux accepted in business will - quite possibly against their better judgement - be more inclined to accept Office than most other Redmond-inspired standards. If Microsoft did do it then the move might result in Linux threatening MS at the client level as well as the server, but if MS reckons that Linux is going to make headway at client level anyway, it might be prepared to use Office to try to control it. Get Office in there, tie it closer to MS standards and NT servers, and maintain world domination by alternative means? The Linux community would of course instantly identify this as a not-very-cunning plan to "pollute" Linux, but Microsoft might also be banking on Linux being changed by success, whether the Linux community likes it or not. Major PC manufacturers, for instance, would view the ability to ship Office with their Linux machines entirely positively (they've been happily shipping MS software for long enough), and their volumes would have a serious impact on the market. And presuming Office for Linux contained stuff like Outlook, Internet Explorer, Office Update, and all of the other MS-specific goodies (hello, DirectX, hello UPnP), Microsoft wouldn't necessarily lose because of Linux growth. Pervert and survive? It could happen... ®

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