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Microsoft's fear of an OpenOffice

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Open...and Shut Perhaps Microsoft's failure to meaningfully penetrate new markets like search has it scrambling to defend old turf like Office, but something is awry in the company's latest salvo against OpenOffice.

Microsoft, with a gargantuan 94-per-cent share of the office productivity market, has seen fit to release a video beating up on its hapless open-source competitor, OpenOffice.

An acknowledgment of a genuine threat, or an act of foolishness?

Probably both. Even at the most optimistic analyses of OpenOffice's market share, it's still a pebble in Microsoft's shoe. Google Docs is a far more daunting competitor, given that it has a big name (Google) and a big trend (the web and software as a service) going for it.

OpenOffice? Today it's little more than a rerun of the best and worst of Microsoft Office. It's simply not a threat to Microsoft's Office monopoly, but the video makes Microsoft look "petty, paranoid, and bullying," as IBM vice president of Open Systems and Linux Bob Sutor told me.

It's not as if Microsoft doesn't have bigger challenges facing it. Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer continues to believe that "people want everything they can do on their PC and more" on tablets, but Apple has clearly demonstrated the opposite. We actually want to do different things with our iPads and devices like Android phones.

Things other than Office. Really.

As I've noted in this column before, Microsoft needs to look forward, not backward. It may be convenient for the company to fetishize old markets as it seeks to move its market share needle from 94 per cent to 94.3 per cent. But who cares? Microsoft could claim every single dedicated OpenOffice user and it wouldn't even ripple the surface of its revenue.

Of course, it's possible that Microsoft sees something the wider market doesn't yet see: momentum building for Office defections. The Register's Kelly Fiveash suggests: "By declaring such a threat, it would seem that Microsoft just admitted that it's worried about losing market share in an area where it has been unshakeable for years."

If true, it would seem that the last thing Microsoft would want to do would be to dignify its competition with a formal campaign. Remember its "Get the Facts" campaign against Linux? That one worked wonders for Linux, putting the upstart operating system on the radar screen of a huge swath of CIOs who probably hadn't given Linux much thought up until that point.

The same may well be true of its anti-OpenOffice screed. The more Microsoft acknowledges competition from OpenOffice, the more competition it will get. That is hardly sane behavior for a software giant intent upon milking its legacy Office business for as long as people keep buying it.

This isn't the first sign that Microsoft is worried about OpenOffice. It advertised for a "compete lead" against OpenOffice in late 2009, and has called out OpenOffice as a competitive threat here (warning: Word Doc) in its annual reports.

But this feels different. This feels more like Microsoft's Get the Facts campaign, and less like a thinly veiled attempt to pretend to antitrust authorities that it has real competition. But the odd and sad thing is that, if true, it's Microsoft acknowledging competition in a market that five years from now no one will care about. ®

Matt Asay is chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears every Friday on The Register.

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