For many years, the gold standard in word processing has been Microsoft’s Office software. Indeed, Microsoft Word is so entrenched as the word processing software of choice that its name has practically become synonymous with its function – as Kleenex has with facial tissue. But I.B.M., arguably Microsoft’s biggest contender for computer-related supremacy, is gearing up to challenge Microsoft’s dominance.
On September 18, 2007, I.B.M. announced their new software, I.B.M. Lotus Symphony, at an event in New York. The program consists of Office-type software that is “open-source”. Open-source technologies, which have been available from other companies for some time, allow a user to link their office software to other users. This means, according to the New York Times, that a doctor’s office, for example, could create a document or a spreadsheet with a patient’s medical information that could be automatically linked up and updated on that patient’s hospital records, or in a specialist’s office. This technology, as stated above, is not new. Microsoft has its own version. What is so groundbreaking about I.B.M.’s version, however, is that it is free.
Clearly, this development is of some concern for Microsoft, whose version of the software can be quite costly. Just weeks before the I.B.M. version (which is backed by Google and Sun Microsystems) was announced, Microsoft attempted to have their program ratified by the International Organization for Standardization in Geneva as the technical standard, but failed. ISO standards are put in place to facilitate the sharing of technological advances and to safeguard consumers. Unfortunately for Microsoft, I.B.M.’s format was approved a year earlier as the international standard.
Presumably, Microsoft was looking to have their standard ratified as a way of justifying the cost. While it is unlikely that I.B.M’s software is going to replace the Microsoft Office Suite as the software of choice for consumers, it will absolutely have an impact. How could a software that works just as well, and indeed well enough to be certified as the technical standard, and is offered for free, not impact Microsoft’s market share? A spokesperson for Microsoft hinted to the New York Times that the lack of compatibility with older Office documents will sufficiently limit the spread of I.B.M’s product.
I think Microsoft hit on a key point here. Consumers, especially those of us who are not technologically savvy, stick to what we know. I know that if I buy a new version of Office, I can open any document and I’ve ever written and nothing will have changed. Even if it is only the formatting that could be altered by the new program, I know I wouldn’t risk it. The question this raises for me however, is if I.B.M. can do it for free, why can’t Microsoft?
I think the answer is that they don’t have to. The emotion that Microsoft is targeting by threatening non-compatibility is the reason they have the dominance in the first place – fear. There is so much fear in the marketplace around new technology for those who don’t understand it. And I think that companies like Microsoft, record companies, cell phone companies and the like prey on this fear. Even I, with my limited technological knowledge, know that Microsoft Office can be easily transferred from one computer to another. And yet, when I bought my brand new laptop for law school, I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking it from a family member’s computer. I was so concerned with not having my Office software properly registered with Microsoft, that I paid the money to buy it. I don’t even know what that registration means – has it provided me any security? Unlikely. But if I had it to do over again, would I still pay the $300 rather than getting it for free from either I.B.M. or a friend? Absolutely.
Though I can freely admit that I’ll still pay the money, the release of I.B.M.’s software does make me wonder why I have to. I.B.M. isn’t in the business of altruism. As questioned above, if it is financially viable to produce this kind of software and to freely distribute it, why can’t Microsoft do that as well? As word processing becomes as common, or even more so, then taking pen to paper, shouldn’t we be re-examining what we charge for access? No one would by a notebook for hundreds of dollars, and rightfully so – we know what it costs to produce it. And now we know the same for software – Viva La Revolution.