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Oracle Backing Microsoft Office Rival

Oracle's OpenOffice.org development team is testing a new user interface that resembles the "ribbon" interface that Microsoft introduced with Office 2007.

This is far from the first attempt at breaking into the Microsoft desktop monopoly, but given Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's insatiable desire to beat Microsoft at every turn, it has a chance. And Ellison has a potent force in former Stellent executive Phil Boutros, an expert at the kind of reverse-engineering of binary code needed to crack legacy Office proprietary formats and make Open Office fully backwards-compatible with legacy Office documents.

There has been no shortage of open source alternatives to Microsoft Office, but most have languished in the ghetto of open source enthusiasts; even Google Docs and Zoho, which have been around for far less long, have had more success, particularly in the enterprise market. It hasn't helped their cause that the various open source projects have had competing and uncooperative corporate sponsors -- notably Sun and IBM, which disagreed about how best to attack Microsoft, and were wary of giving the other an advantage.

But the biggest issue confronting open source alternatives to Microsoft by far is how to deal with legacy Microsoft documents. Before organizations can switch from Office to an open source alternative, they have to be sure that their older documents, usually written using Microsoft Office applications, can still be opened with perfect fidelity. And while open source versions of Office can reliably translate the visible words and numbers, they falter when it comes to macros and other hidden code that is just as important to the document owners.

Oracle's acquisition of Sun, the corporate sponsor of OpenOffice.org, changes the dynamic for two reasons:

  • Phil Boutros, considered by some to be the foremost expert in reverse-engineering Microsoft binary formats that are the key to translating Office documents with perfect fidelity. Gary Edwards, president of Open Stack Business Systems (and former executive director of the Open Document Foundation) told me recently that "wonderful things could happen" if Boutros were put in charge of OpenOffice. In a comment to an article published by the Register, he added:
Phil pushed the important issue of compatibility with the billions of legacy binary documents, and the applications that created them. His reasoning centered around the rather obvious logic that if the world was unable to convert these legacy documents to ODF... there wasn't much point to developing a new format. For new formats to be successful, they would have to be compatible with legacy information and business processing systems.
  • Ellison's insatiable desire to beat Microsoft at every turn. Sun executives may have had no love lost for Microsoft, but let's face it: their hearts weren't in the fight. For one thing, they had bigger fish to fry -- like keeping their company afloat long enough for someone to want buy it. But Ellison's company has the resources and can sense an opportunity. The world is moving to the Web (even Ellison sees this now), and that will cause massive shifts in how both consumers and corporations use applications. Software-as-a-service has become accepted as mainstream, and the increased use of mobile devices -- notably smartphones and netbooks -- as replacements for desktops will further speed adoption of Web-based alternatives to Office. Microsoft hasn't been this vulnerable in a very long time, and if ever there was a time to challenge it on its home turf, this is it.
This will be an uphill climb for Oracle, and one it may not ultimately win. But for Ellison, weakening Microsoft would be sweet enough to make it worth his while persuing, and that alone should give open source enthusiasts more hope than ever of developing a product that can stand up to Microsoft Office, both past and present.
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