Microsoft: Please look like me (well, not all of you)

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InformationWeek is reporting that Microsoft wants many other applications on all sorts of platforms to look like the forthcoming Office 2007 product suite.

Microsoft on Tuesday announced a royalty-free licensing program so that outside developers can apply the Office 2007 interface to their own applications.

There’s a catch, though:

Microsoft will deny a license only to developers who plan to craft direct competitors to the Office 2007 core applications of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Access. “Microsoft spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the research, design, and development of the new Office user interface,” said Harris, “but we want to preserve the innovation for Microsoft’s productivity applications that are already using the new UI.”

A couple of points on this:

  1. is excluded from this, so Microsoft is being explicit about yet one more saber it is holding over the heads of open source developers, as well as competitors. While ODF is designed to increase competition and innovation by many people, thereby delivering greater value and cost efficiency to customers, Microsoft seems to be doing everything they can to be the only game in town. That’s business, I suppose, but you get a choice regarding what you want to do about that.
  2. If they spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the R&D for the UI, their development costs are seriously out of whack, in my opinion. It may look good, but no way should it have cost that much I understand that there may be, shall we say, alternative software development methods that might be more cost effective. In any case, this size of expenditure is further evidence of why I think the office suite market will collapse within the next decade.

This makes good business sense for Microsoft: use the UI to suck more applications into the Office look-and-feel ecosystem, so that customers will feel good about the environment in which they are working. It’s somewhat similar to the “Office as center of the document format universe” play they are running with their massive 6000 page “Open XML” specification.

The stakes are really high here for Microsoft. For 2006, Microsoft’s revenue was $44.282B with an operating income of $16.472B. Their “information worker” line of business had revenue of $11.756B and operating income of $8.285B. This is the category that includes Office:

Information Worker includes Microsoft Office, Microsoft Project, Microsoft Visio, SharePoint Portal Server CAL, and other information worker products including Office Communications Server and OneNote.

Doing the math, this “information worker” segment of the business generated about 26% of the revenue but about 50% of the operating income for Microsoft. It doesn’t take an economics genius to see the sensitivity of continued sales of Office to Microsoft’s overall operating income. Again, this is business, but look at what they are doing and not doing with respect to ODF, OOXML, and now the UI through this financial lens if you want to really understand what is going on.

Their 2006 annual report lays out the perceived risk factors for open source.

Addendum: Tim Bray pointed out these same kinds of numbers in his blog entry “Office Politics and Profits” on November 30, 2005.


  1. I’m not a lawyer, but is there anything in the “ribbon” that is protectable? This reminds me of the “look and feel” arguments of the 1980’s. The ribbon is after all just a glorified toolbar”.

  2. Call me naive, but I had no idea that Microsoft took open source software so seriously. This latest act makes it clear that the open-source community is being shunned rather than merely ignored by our friends at Redmond.

    While their new user interface may be shiny/sleek/whatever, it doesn’t really compare to a good, stable program. Currently, I manage a small IT department overseeing @145 Windows and @50 GNU/Linux machines running OpenOffice. The amount of office suite-related problems that I see on a daily basis should average to roughly three Microsoft Office to one OpenOffice issue. Yet the actual numbers seem to be five to one.

    Instead of worrying about Microsoft’s denial of use for their “ribbon”, I think we need to do just what we have been doing all along: developing high-quality software that we ourselves wish to run. The next logical step would be to develop a set of design standards that provide a degree of user-friendliness without restricting or otherwise insulting the intelligence of more advanced users. The most challenging step would be to agree upon these standards so that there is a higher degree of uniformity between applications.

  3. Judging from what I’ve seen of this (in)famous Microsoft “innovation”, the “Ribbon”, it looks like the Lotus 1-2-3 slash menu adapted to the MS Win32 API and MS Windows look-and-feel.

    I would be interested in knowing what the IBM division of Lotus thinks of this, particularly as Lotus fought and won several “look-and-feel” cases concerning the Lotus1-2-3 interface.

    Needless to say, I wasn’t too impressed about Lotus’ actions when I heard about the consequences to the Twin spreadsheet and its developers. I think I don’t need to bother with this new Microsoft “innovation”. I suspect it will be a fizzer.

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