Can Anybody Take Down Microsoft Office? Probably, Yeah

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I spent my high school years composing bad short stories in PFS Write. The first two years of college were lost to a monstrous Smith Corona typewriter/word processor hybrid. I finally got a Mac Classic in my junior year, and since then I have never been tempted to stray from the happy prison of Microsoft Word. I think of it as one of the “good-Microsoft” products — feature-rich but not bloated. Sure, I’ve suffered through some brutal data-corruption incidents. There’s been some format compatibility heartbreak. I thought it just made us stronger, Microsoft Word.

Now we’re actually seeing some plausible competition, not just for Word but for the whole Office Suite. Google Docs has obviously been around for a while — since August 2006 — but yesterday Google added a beta version of Google Presentations, its answer to PowerPoint. (I’ve noodled around with Google Docs some, and found them to be solid and well-thought-through; certainly if it’s a question of opening a document attachment sent to my Gmail account, Google Docs is the one and only choice, especially if I want to share said doc with somebody else.) Now IBM has just launched its free Lotus Symphony suite (word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, no e-mail app). OpenOffice and Apple’s iWork are lurking somewhere in the wings, sharpening their poniards and flexing their rapiers.

Now, I work in a corporate setting, which means I can usually walk away with a free and semi-ethically-acceptable copy of Office within six months of a new release. But if I were a small business? Or a student, for whom the $130 Office price tag is non-trivial? Or a more ethically upright human? I’d be aggressively exploring my non-Office options. Format compatibility is well on its way to becoming a non-issue. There was a time when I felt skeevy about doing mission-critical document-composing in my browser, but browsers are stable enough now that I’d probably start with Google. I don’t see a way for Microsoft to win this one, except this: release a stripped-down Office-lite product for non-power-users, and make it free.