A world without Word?
Agencies might have to find other word-processing programs, observers say
- By Trudy Walsh
- Aug 20, 2009
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
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
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.
Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.