Microsoft's Achilles Heel is still Office

Microsoft is in more danger now than it has been for decades. This is because almost its entire edifice is built on two products: Windows and Office. Everything else that it produces is an also-ran by an incredible margin. The trouble is, that edifice has a major fault line running right through it.

The start of that fault line is government procurement and the seismic event that could open it is the long-running austerity drive that most governments are having to implement.

To understand that fault line, you need to understand a little about governments. If a government uses a particular file format, it normally expects its suppliers to use that format too. If the suppliers are using that format, their suppliers need to use it. And so on. It’s like one big, slow toppling of dominoes.

Then there’s procurement. Most governments have rules that do not allow them to just buy something. They need to put out a request for tender. In the case of software, they can’t just request Microsoft Office because that would be anti-competitive. So they have to request something like, “Office software that is standards compliant and Microsoft Office compatible to allow opening of existing files,” so that competitors have a chance.

If you know anything about open source software, your mind may well have jumped to OpenOffice.Org but there are plenty of other OpenDocument Format office suites including some from big name brands like IBM and WordPerfect. Not forgetting that Google’s online office suite is all compatible too.

Crucially, in 2006, OpenDocument Format became an ISO standard. Which meant, in theory at least, that it was the only format government departments should be allowed to use. Open source activists started a good push to get OpenOffice.Org and similar suites into government departments. Companies like IBM and Sun put plenty of effort in too. Microsoft Office was not standards compliant.

But governments also have opt-out clauses that they can use to name specific products in their tendering and many did just that so that they could continue using Microsoft Office. And then, in 2008, disaster of all disasters for the OpenDocument Format proponents: Microsoft controversially managed to get its new OOXML format made into an ISO standard too. Government departments could and did go back to just buying Microsoft Office without putting any thought into it.

Many of the activists and promoters of OpenDocument Format gave up trying to get it into government. The moment that OOXML became an ISO standard, the wind seemed to leave their sails.

Those activists and promoters now have a new weapon: the austerity drive that most European governments are implementing. It won’t take long before government department heads are being shown figures that show just how much money it will save them to switch to OpenDocument Format. Those heads are trying to find at least 20% cuts in their budget here in the UK and more than one hundred pounds per desk will be incredibly tempting.

What’s more, government IT staff will be looking to try to secure their jobs. A big internal project to switch to OpenDocument Format will be just the kind of thing they want. Offering to cut software licensing costs will potentially mean fewer job losses. It will mean the IT staff, with no outlay whatsoever, are too busy saving the department money to be laid off.

There can be little doubt that Office is Microsoft’s Achilles heel. Without it, why would anyone buy Windows? Governments and companies have put huge effort into making most of their enterprise applications web-based. You don’t need Windows for web-based applications and you don’t need Windows for OpenOffice.Org or StarOffice. And without Office and Windows, Microsoft will crumble.

No wonder Microsoft has started to treat OpenDocument Format as the enemy.