Locking in

Mar 7, 2007 20:23 · 351 words · 2 minute read

JP Rangaswami makes an interesting point about whether you can consider MS Office documents as a form of DRM, or at least as a form of lock-in:

Somewhere inside my head, there is no difference between my buying a song via the iTunes store and my creating a spreadsheet via Microsoft Excel.

How come people don’t feel the same way about Office documents? Isn’t that a form of DRM? How come nobody objects? How come we don’t have clever people finding ways of freeing up such documents from their lock-ins?

It’s certainly an interesting angle, but I’m not sure that DRM and formats like Office are strictly comparable - DRM is ostensibly (or at least legally) unreversable, whereas Office documents are generally readable in other applications. You can open and convert an Excel spreadsheet into another application and format, whereas it’s made much more difficult with iTunes - unless you bypass the DRM altogether by fair means or foul.The lock-in comes more from the inertia involved in moving users from one application to another.

That’s where Microsoft could well have shot themselves in the foot with the latest version of Office. The radically different interface (and presumably, also more powerful hardware required) means that corporates are going to take their time over a move. At the same time, there are now increasingly viable alternatives in the shape of applications like OpenOffice and formats like ODF - so by the time corporates are ready to move, the palette of choices may be considerably wider than it is today.

But that’s assuming that there isn’t an ecosystem effect to contend with - my organisation uses a document management system that’s tied to Office at a DLL level - so until the DMS vendor creates the same kind of compatibility with say, OpenOffice, Microsoft’s the only game in town.

What I find more objectionable is the way that we are conditioning our kids to equate documents with Word and spreadsheets with Excel and presentations with Powerpoint - all of the educational establishments that I’m aware of are standardised on Microsoft OSes and applications…