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MS + Corel = Office for Linux? In your dreams…

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Analysis The persistent - and persistently wrong - rumours that Microsoft is going to port Office to Linux will have gained new impetus following yesterday's "alliance" with Corel. Here we have Microsoft pumping cash into a leading Linux vendor which is also just about (pace Sun) its last serious competitor in the apps business. Microsoft must want Corel's Linux expertise to get the skunkworks Linux Office port flying, right?

Such an interpretation requires heroic optimism, and extraordinary faith - in the face of all the historical evidence - that Microsoft is prepared to view non-Windows markets as fields to be developed for rather than opposition to be crushed. Again, against all the historical evidence, it presupposes that Microsoft views licensing deals as mutually advantageous give and take relationships. Embrace, extend, extinguish? You heard that one?

One day Microsoft may prove that it's a nice company after all, but it has a huge weight of pre-existing baggage to shift before that happens. Microsoft always acts to protect and boost its own assets, which we can define as whatever it happens to be calling Windows today, while at the same time hobbling and destabilising potential competition. This doesn't appear to have stopped Duncan Stewart, apparently working as a portfolio manager for Tera Capital while on day-release from Disneyland, from telling Dow Jones Newswires: "This is Microsoft doing it out of the goodness of its heart, and hopefully picking up some good technology." But goodness, Duncan, has nothing to do with it.

Microsoft's primary objective at the moment is to make .NET succeed, so recruiting Corel as a .NET supporter makes a certain amount of sense. If we then look at the kind of support for .NET that makes sense to Microsoft, we can probably get a clearer fix on what the deal really means.

Microsoft views .NET as a rich set of Web-based services, running on Microsoft servers, that can be accessed from any client, any time, anywhere. Microsoft itself doesn't particularly want to develop the client technology for non-Windows platforms that will allow them to access .NET services, but given that the company anticipates making the money out of the services rather than the clients, some support for outfits like Corel makes sense. But if you adopt a Microsoft mindset for a moment it makes sense to allow, say, Linux devices to access the future .NET-enabled version of Office running on Windows servers. It makes no sense whatasoever to implement that version of Office on Linux servers, or to help Linux, or Solaris or whatever, to play at the server end of .NET.

As Steve Ballmer said a while back, .NET will conform to industry standards and will be available to all platforms, but there will be Microsoft/Windows-specific stuff that you'll only be able to access if you join in the programme. The granting and withholding of the ability to do so will be what's worth watching here, in general, and in the particular case of Corel.

Microsoft's alliances with the likes of Bristol and Mainsoft give a possible blueprint for the sort of role it envisages for Corel. By working with Unix companies Microsoft has been able to boost the apparent interoperability of Windows-based networking, while keeping the partner on a close leash, and maintaining the ability to tighten it suddenly, as in the case of Bristol. On past experience, any licences Corel wins will be highly restrictive - and of course secret. It will also be prone to termination when it has outlived its usefulness.

That kind of approach also overlaps with something Microsoft does really well - developer support and momentum. Clearly it intends the development of .NET applications to be carried out by Windows developers working closely with Microsoft, but at least initially the pitch will sound better if developers for other platforms appear to be catered for, and Corel can provide some credibility here. Committed Windows developers are already onside, but can be cheered by the prospect of even bigger markets, while others can be tempted in by the addition of non-Windows support.

There are two ways this could work. At minimum, you could develop on Windows and be sure your app would run on Linux, without the development tools actually being ported to Linux. But Microsoft could also go for something more ambitious, taking the blueprint from its approach to Java, XML and certain internal documentation that leaked a while back. Most likely it will want to keep its development tools well away from Linux, but there's an outside chance it might try the embrace and extend gag, as proposed in the Halloween memo, instead.

For GPL-related reasons the more ambitious option is tricky, but probably not viewed as impossible by Redmond. After all, the company is extending XML while continuing to shout 'industry standards, 'and continuing to promise it will make its technology available to all and sundry. Eventually. Once it has a clear, insurmountable lead. But Office for Linux? Even WordPerfect and Corel Draw co-opted to .NET? Foreget it, and back to Disneyland with you. ®

Related story:
MS bucks save Linux vendor Corel - but save it for what?

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