Nine states in antitrust case target Microsoft's Office

The nine holdout states that want tougher remedies imposed against Microsoft are attempting to weaken the software giant's desktop monopoly by giving the Linux operating system something it can really use: Office.

          The nine holdout states that want tougher remedies imposed against Microsoft are attempting to weaken the software giant's desktop monopoly by giving the Linux operating system something it can really use: Office.

          Microsoft's Office application has a market share as large as the Windows operating system -- more than 90% -- and analysts have long seen Office as one of the pillars supporting the Windows operating system's dominance.

          Porting Office to Linux "would propel Linux on the desktop as a competitor significantly," says Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group. The absence of Office "is the one thing that keeps me from using Linux as my desktop machine," he adds.

          But some end users aren't so sure a Linux version of Office would have a big impact.

          "I think everybody in the world is probably looking for some competitive desktop operating system, but I don't think that anybody wants to switch," says Robert Hacker, systems manager at Binney & Smith, the Easton, Pennsylvania-based maker of Crayola crayons. While he thinks the idea of moving to Linux is intriguing, Hacker says he would have to see a "critical mass" of adoption to consider it.

          One reason many companies might have trouble moving to a Linux desktop is because of other Windows-based applications.

          "We have lots of applications that are Windows-based," says Dan Orr, IT manager at Kokosing Construction in Fredericktown, Ohio. His company has about 700 desktops, 25% of which run other critical Windows-based applications, such as those used in bidding.

          Moving some desktops and not others to Linux would increase costs, says Orr. "I would have two different operating systems to maintain," he says. "That would be tougher than maintaining just one."

          The remedy proposal, filed in US District Court late Friday, is an alternative to the settlement reached by the US Department of Justice and half of the 18 states originally involved. The dissenting states -- California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, West Virginia and Utah -- plus the District of Columbia rejected the settlement and are continuing the court case.

          Other remedies sought by the states include requirements that Microsoft make Internet Explorer open source and provide a stripped-down version of its operating system free of middleware products such as media players and instant messaging tools. The company would also have to submit to the oversight of a "special master," a court-appointed official with more power then the three-member technical committee called for in the Justice Department settlement reached last month.

          The states' proposal does include some of the same stipulations called for in the earlier settlement, including provisions that Microsoft fully disclose its operating system interfaces and set uniform pricing for its Windows operating system with PC makers.

          Microsoft already ports Office to Apple Computer's Macintosh operating system, and Michael Cusumano, an MIT management professor, says he believes it should be up to the company, not the government, to decide whether Office is ever ported to Linux.

          "If [porting to Linux] ends up being a losing proposition economically, does the government end up reimbursing Microsoft?" says Cusumano.

          Citing Microsoft's decision to port to Apple, Cusumano says, "If Microsoft thinks the application market is large enough and profitable enough, they will port applications to that market. [But] it should be a business, decision and I don't think the business case is there yet."

          David Smith, an analyst at Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Group, says the availability of Office on Apple has not spurred corporate adoption.

          "You've already got Office on the Macintosh -- has it really made the Macintosh?" notes Smith. "I don't know of many corporations that want to get rid of Microsoft."

          Experts also see a problem with the states' proposal to require a stripped-down version of the Windows operating system. "What features would you take out?" asks Smith.

          Dennis Murphy, IT manager at American Orthodontics in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, says he sees possible benefits to the open sourcing of Internet Explorer, because it would allow developers or end users to modify it.

          "Open source is always better," he says.

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