A world without Word?

If Microsoft is barred from selling Word, agencies would find alternative products and workarounds, observers say.


This story has been modified since its original publication to correct erroneous information. The Joint Forces Command considered using Sun's OpenOffice on a project, but officials moved the project to another agency.

Will federal agencies need to start looking for new word-processing software to prepare for the day when they can no longer buy the nearly ubiquitous Microsoft Word? Although most experts say that's unlikely, it is possible now that Microsoft is fighting a patent-infringement ruling.

A federal judge recently ordered the software giant to stop selling its flagship word-processing software because of what the plaintiff, i4i of Canada, called a willful infringement of one of its patents.

Microsoft has filed an emergency stay. But for argument’s sake, imagine a federal government sans Microsoft Word. That familiar desktop icon of a blue "W" in a white box would vanish. What would the government do?

Alternatives to the popular Microsoft package are readily available, some of them for free. Google Docs, Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice and OpenOffice, and Corel’s WordPerfect offer similar functionality to Microsoft Office products.

But many users are familiar with Word's capabilities and quirks, and agency acquisition officials are accustomed to buying Microsoft products. “Taking away the choice of Word forces an alternative that many will not be ready for,” said Sheri McLeish, an analyst at Forrester Research. The licensing fees for the alternative products might be lower, but they have hidden costs — for support, migration and content remediation — that add up, she said.

Furthermore, many government agencies have enterprise license agreements with Microsoft that let the agencies add new copies of software as needed by paying a flat rate for the whole agency. At least one analyst believes those contracts will remain in effect even if the courts ultimately forbid Microsoft to continue selling Word.

“Once you have a license, you have a license,” said Scott Orbach, president of EZ GSA, adding that any licenses that were sold and already in use would probably not be subject to the injunction.

Orbach contrasted the Microsoft case with a recent copyright violation involving Amazon.com and its Kindle electronic book. In the United States, a book’s copyright falls into the public domain after 100 years from its original publication. In Canada and England, however, it only takes 50 years. Amazon was selling U.S. customers a Canadian version of George Orwell’s “1984” for a public-domain price of 99 cents. When Amazon found out that it had infringed on a copyright, it deleted all the 99-cent copies of the novel from U.S. Kindles. Users who went to read the novel on their devices could no longer find it.

Microsoft won't do that with its enterprise license agreements, Orbach said. It won't pull copies that customers have already bought.

Other analysts say Microsoft might choose to remove the Extensible Markup Language components that infringe on i4i's patent and sell new versions of Word without them.

And Microsoft Word, though popular, is not the exclusive word-processing software of the federal government. For example, the Joint Forces Command is using OpenOffice for a small experimental project, said Kathleen Jabs, a spokeswoman at the command.