Do We Still Need Microsoft?

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 3:29 PM
There has been a flurry of announcements in recent weeks concerning Linux on the corporate desktop. Red Hat announced a new focus on desktop Linux to complement their server-focused offerings. Sun Microsystems announced a move into low-cost desktop systems running Linux, competing with such companies as Dell. These announcements seem to suggest these companies now believe Linux has matured to the point where it makes sense to run on a corporate desktop.
Linux has had numerous obstacles to overcome before being truly viable in a corporate desktop environment.
Linux has had numerous obstacles to overcome before being truly viable in a corporate desktop environment. Issues such as hardware compatibility, usability, technical support, and software compatibility have restricted Linux' acceptance among IT professionals. Through the hard work and dedication of Open Source Software developers, most of whom write code for free, Linux has overcome these obstacles in the past couple years. Because of this, the recent announcements concerning Linux on the desktop have less to do with Linux than they do with Microsoft Windows. Many companies and IT professionals have come to understand the single biggest reason for Linux' upcoming success on the corporate desktop: There is no longer a compelling reason to run Microsoft Windows on a corporate desktop.

Years ago Microsoft made a marketing decision to bundle together its desktop productivity software in a new product called Microsoft Office. Due to its lower cost (relative to purchasing each application separately) and myriad other reasons, this new Office product caught on in the corporate world. Businesses flocked to it. Microsoft's Word and Excel formats became the standard formats used in business. Compatibility with Office became mandatory, and in most cases still is. With each successive release of Office, and Word in particular, Microsoft changed the file formats, making it especially difficult for competitors to write filters to make their software work with Microsoft's. Thus, compatibility with Office required running Office and running Office required running Windows. This is no longer the case.

In 1999 Sun Microsystems, a company specializing in high-end servers running Solaris (a UNIX variant), purchased a small German company named Star Division Corporation. Star Division's claim to fame was their flagship product named StarOffice. The company claimed seamless operation with Microsoft's file formats and for the most part delivered on their promise. Approximately a year after buying Star Division, Sun made the code to StarOffice available under the Gnu Public License. was formed to begin maintaining and improving the code base. Sun would later use the code produced by and combine it with their proprietary code to release StarOffice 6.0. In January, 2002, release OpenOffice 1.0. The developers improved upon the already impressive compatibility with Microsoft Office. I have personally used OpenOffice and StarOffice for everything from simple memoranda to complex loan amortization spreadsheets and was able to use the files in Microsoft Office. I, like many others, have discovered that compatibility with Microsoft Office no longer requires Microsoft software - including Windows, because OpenOffice runs on Windows and Linux. Barring specialty hardware or software that will only run in a Windows environment, the average corporate desktop user simply does not need to run Microsoft Windows. Thus it is that Microsoft's grip on the desktop has been broken.

Given the license fees (including a forced subscription with XP) for Microsoft software, the never ending flood of viruses spread via Outlook, and the ever dangerous remote exploits, businesses have begun to look elsewhere for their desktop computing environment. Linux, with OpenOffice and/or StarOffice, is set to take over the corporate market. There is no longer a compelling reason to run Microsoft software. The reasons for running Linux are just getting better.
John-Thomas Richards is a contributing editor to Open for Business. He is a senior banker at a small financial institution. He has been using GNU/Linux for over six years.