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Microsoft should weather IBM desktop move

Industry observers expect Redmond to fend off IBM's bold move to challenge Microsoft's preeminence on the desktop. That doesn't mean Office is invincible, however.

IT administrators with time and money invested in Microsoft's Windows platform and Office suite won't be quick to change their software strategy just because a vendor with all of IBM's muscle comes along with an alternative pitch.

IBM this week grabbed headlines with the formal release of Workplace 2.0, which is a middleware strategy that revisits the notion of centrally managing desktops from a server. IBM's combination of Web-based computing and server software delivers its own spin on having a rich -- not fat -- client. It's IBM's twist to an idea that other vendors have been experimenting with since the late 1990s.

IBM said it will let any type of mobile device, such as a laptop or a PDA, access applications from a server via a middleware component.

Executives who are happy with what they have will put up the most resistance.

Mark Richards, principal consultant,

La-Z-Boy Inc.,
End users can access applications on a server using only their browser, though parts of the application reside on the desktop so that customers can work offline.

Outside the current mold

But whether IBM's plans will end Microsoft's dominance of the desktop anytime soon is unlikely, industry observers say. Considering that there are already desktop suite alternatives, such as OpenOffice, an open source offering, and the StarOffice suite from Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM's announcement by itself doesn't change anything; it's just a different approach, said Gordon Haff, senior analyst at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H., consulting company.

The fact that IBM is using a different model could, in fact, slow down adoption of IBM's approach, Haff said. "In the case of OpenOffice or StarOffice, an IT manager can compare like to like," Haff said.

With IBM's approach, there is a complex price analysis required because there is a per-user price and a WebSphere price to consider. IT executives also have to think about the disruption caused by a migration from one model to another. "There are a lot of things IT managers would have to analyze and understand," Haff said.

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"It may be a reasonable and appropriate approach, but there will still be a significant hurdle to get there."

For most companies with Microsoft Office, there are simply no good economic reasons to oust that productivity suite. Office applications running on Windows work better and there is less risk, said Peter Pawlak, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm. Any competitor would also have to address compatibility and training issues.

The best opportunity for an application suite vendor to get customers to switch is when someone is making a platform change, such as a move to Linux. "It may even take a while for those [suite] vendors to succeed, and they may not succeed," Pawlak said.

Waiting for innovation

While there are IT customers who are open to change and who feel disenfranchised by Microsoft, there are more who are true to the Office suite, said Mark Richards, a principal consultant at La-Z-Boy Inc., a Monroe, Mich.-based furniture maker. He said that because of training and licensing issues, it may be less of a hassle for customers to stick with Office.

"Executives who are happy with what they have will put up the most resistance," Richards said.

And though Microsoft's next operating system, code-named Longhorn, is late, Microsoft is essentially moving its own computing strategy in the same direction, and many customers are willing to wait and see what Microsoft delivers.

"There are enough people in the corporate world that believe Microsoft has something on the boards that will compete with this," said Rick Heigas, director of technical services at High Point University, in High Point, N.C.

This is not to say that Microsoft isn't vulnerable. In fact, customers are already seeing some of this vulnerability in terms of price drops for Office 2003 both on the consumer side and in the enterprise, Illuminata's Haff said. Office functions have been largely stagnant for the past few years. But unless IBM cooks up something a lot better, IT administrators will find it tough to make a case to move to a different product entirely.

For some analysts, perhaps the more interesting issue going forward will be how Microsoft will execute on a post-Longhorn version of Office. "Will they come up with something that abandons full backward compatibility to rewrite Office?" Pawlak said. "It would be a gutsy move and may be foolish, but it's too early to tell."

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