Federal future cloudy for Microsoft Word

Agencies are wondering how a court's ruling banning Microsoft from selling Word will affect their procurement plans.

Federal officials are wondering whether a recent injunction against Microsoft will force them to rethink their software purchase plans and are unsure how much they can count on the popular word processing software to be available in the months and years ahead.

It’s certain that current users of Word will be unaffected. The injunction, which will bar Microsoft from selling Word 2003, Word 2007 and future versions of the program, takes effect in mid-October, though a pending appeal by Microsoft will probably push that out by a year or more.

A federal judge in the U.S. District of East Texas ruled Aug. 11 in favor of a Canadian firm, i4i Ltd., which alleged that Microsoft had infringed its patent concerning custom XML.

The court ruling also ordered Microsoft to pay about $290 million in damages to i4i.

“It’s not our intention for this to have a retroactive implementation,” said Louden Owen, i4i chairman. “Current users can continue with the program, and we will be compensated for any damages that have occurred to date from the court award.”

The time set by the judge for Word sales to stop should give users a substantial period to find an alternative supplier of the technology “which, hopefully, will be us,” Owen said.

Microsoft spokesman Kevin Kutz assured federal customers that they can continue to purchase the products through the end of the fiscal year, fulfilling any end-of-year buying strategies they had. However, he didn’t speculate about what might happen after that.

"The suit is not about file formats, and the verdict has no implications for Open XML,” Kutz added. “It is about the way Microsoft Word handles certain kinds of code. In addition, the particular Custom XML functionality at issue is not used by most customers."

The suit charged that Microsoft violated the Canadian company’s patent for technology used to read .XML and .DOCM files containing custom XML, which is a way for organizations to design their own XML templates and forms. Specifically, the judgment orders Microsoft to stop selling Word products "that have the capability of opening a .XML, .DOCX, or .DOCM file ('an XML file') containing custom XML."

That feature was first included in Word 2003 and has been standard in all versions since.

Agency procurement practices mean the injunction is unlikely to affect agencies for some time, even if Microsoft loses its appeal, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at FedSources.

“Agencies might wait two or three years to refresh technologies, and those that need current versions of Word and Microsoft Office probably already have them,” he said. “So I don’t think there’ll be a lot of ripple effect at the agency level.”

Also, said Jeremy Grant, vice president and chief development officer at Acquisition Solutions Inc., most federal agencies don’t do the kind of spot deals that could be affected by the court case.

“Most have multiyear enterprise license deals for products like this," he said.

The patent battle could have implications further down the road, however, as agencies consider what their future purchases should be. As Bjorklund said, some agencies still use Word rival WordPerfect, which is as yet unaffected by i4i’s patent claims. And others such as the Defense Department have been looking at open-source challengers to Microsoft, such as Sun's OpenOffice suite, available for free.

i4i said it has looked at OpenOffice and found it doesn’t infringe on its patents.

“The federal government is by no means a complete Microsoft house and, in some instances, I can see agencies looking at the court case and seeing it as the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Bjorklund said. “They’ll either delay purchase of Word, or just decide to go to something else.”

However, that could also depend on how Microsoft handles the technical makeup of Word. The company declined to comment, but there’s been plenty of comment on the Web and elsewhere about potential workarounds, including suggestions that Microsoft simply strip the custom XML feature from future versions of Word and Microsoft Office.

If that happens, i4i said it will be ready.

“We have explained [to federal agencies] ways of moving from Microsoft Word to an i4i implementation of custom XML,” said Michael Vuple, i4i’s founder. “If agencies want custom XML, we are prepared, and we are working on a way for them to use our technology.”

The company hasn’t been actively marketing that approach to government so far because it didn’t want to take advantage of the current “unfortunate situation,” he said. But with agencies likely to be asking the question, he said i4i will probably have to take a more proactive stance in the future.