Microsoft's Office dominance is in no immediate peril

Private sector shows little interest in adopting OpenDocument alternative

The governments of Massachusetts, Belgium and Hong Kong are game to try the Open Document Format for Office Applications. But in corporations from Honolulu to Los Angeles to Cincinnati, there’s scant usage and little planning for it.

The XML-based OpenDocument format is one of the technologies that could free IT managers to realistically consider alternatives to Microsoft Corp.’s dominant Office suite.

But Computerworld polls of IT managers suggest that Microsoft’s stranglehold on the office applications market isn’t in any imminent danger.

At last week’s Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in Palm Desert, Calif., a whopping 88% of 210 respondents to an electronic poll indicated they either hadn’t considered an alternative to Office or had done so only casually.

Office’s proprietary binary formats have often forced companies to stick with the suite so they can open documents from their external business partners. Standard XML, if widely adopted, would alter the situation that has led to vendor lock-in.

But in an e-mail poll of more than 50 corporate IT managers, a majority of respondents said they have no plans to use ODF — though they do have plans to use Microsoft’s Office Open XML, the default format in the new Office 2007 suite.

When asked which format she favors, an IT director at a major automaker replied, “In theory, ODF, but pragmatism will drive us to Office Open XML.”

Staying the Course

The desktop plans at The Procter & Gamble Co., one of the bellwethers among large IT buyers, illustrate why ODF is struggling in the private sector. The Cincinnati-based consumer goods giant employs 140,000 people, and, because of its size, finds it difficult to make dramatic changes, said Filippo Passerini, P&G’s global services officer and CIO.

This year, P&G will roll out the time-tested Office 2003 across the company, not the new Office 2007. Although Passerini said that he remains open-minded about the potential of ODF, he noted that P&G will continue to use Office’s default formats for now.

“If in two, three, five years, there is a significant opportunity to do something different, we’ll see when the time comes,” Passerini said. “But we don’t have a strategy or firm plan in this area yet.”

Pie Charts

P&G, like all companies, will ultimately have to make a decision about XML document formats. XML is the default format in Word, Excel and PowerPoint for the first time in the recently released version of Microsoft Office. Older Office versions can also be adapted to open and save files in Office 2007’s XML format through free add-on software known as a Compatibility Pack.

But XML is only part of the equation. Corporate IT shops must choose between Microsoft’s flavor, known as Office Open XML, and ODF, the ISO standard spawned by Microsoft rivals Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM.

Microsoft is working to match ODF’s ISO status, recognizing that such approval can carry considerable weight with government and corporate users. The software maker took the unprecedented step of submitting Office Open XML to the ECMA International standards body and is now pursuing ISO standardization as well.

“We’ll probably pick one as the default, to use the most,” said Keith Glennan, chief technology officer at Northrop Grumman Corp. “But I suspect we will not be able to completely eliminate one format or the other unless the marketplace does that for us.”

For Northrop Grumman, settling on one standard may be tough, because its main customer base is in the government sector, where some interest in ODF is percolating.

IBM, Sun and other ODF proponents have focused on courting cash-strapped government bodies that must preserve public documents, in some cases for at least 100 years, and that increasingly frown on proprietary file formats that require specific applications to open them.

Government Plans

Seven national governments, four regional governments and more than 50 government agencies have signaled their intentions to adopt ODF, according to Marino Marcich, managing director of the year-old ODF Alliance.

“I don’t think there’s the level of awareness concerning ODF on the corporate side. We’re hoping to change that,” he said. “It wasn’t too long ago that WordPerfect was the ubiquitous format, and no one was predicting it would be supplanted.”

But even if ODF catches on in the government sector, that doesn’t mean alternatives to the Microsoft Office suite will. The government bodies that Marcich cited as “farthest along” in implementing their ODF plans — Massachusetts and Belgium — have both turned to plug-in software that will allow Office users to open and save files in ODF.

When Massachusetts made its controversial and pioneering decision to adopt ODF, the most prominent office application suites to support the format were OpenOffice.org, Sun’s StarOffice and IBM’s Workplace. So ODF was often perceived to be tied to a product decision. Microsoft blasted the state’s plan, but the firestorm died down with the emergence of ODF plug-ins for Microsoft Office.

Corporations, however, may not want the hassle of ODF plug-ins.

John Hinkle, CIO at Trans World Entertainment Corp. in Albany, N.Y., said that he has found non-Microsoft standards to be difficult to manage and support, “especially when plug-ins are required.”

Steve Ellis

Steve Ellis

Photo by Asa Mathat

Steve Ellis, an executive vice president and group manager in the wholesale services group at Wells Fargo & Co., said he simply has a hard time envisioning his company deploying a plug-in or moving off its Microsoft Office standard. “Office is the standard for most companies,” Ellis said. “It’s a people standard. It’s hard fighting a people standard vs. a technology standard. The people standard is going to win.” 

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