Novell's suit points to Office dominance

Novell's antitrust lawsuit alleging that Microsoft illegally tried to eliminate competition in the desktop applications market in the mid-1990s highlights the continuing problems that alternatives to Microsoft Office have in winning users.

The lawsuit involves the WordPerfect application suite, which Novell owned from 1994 to 1996. WordPerfect is now owned by Corel, which released Version 12 of the suite this year. Corel also has forged alliances with PC makers such as Dell, which will offer the applications on some of its systems.

But according to The NPD Group, a market research firm, WordPerfect as of September had just a 2.4 percent share of the market for productivity suites sold through retail and online channels. That was good enough for second place behind Microsoft, which controls more than 95 percent of the market.

The experience of Pete Collins, CIO for the city of Austin, points to one of the difficulties vendors have in trying to compete against Office. Collins has tested the free open-source productivity software developed by OpenOffice.org. He said third-party software vendors have built links to the applications in Office to handle certain functions but not to the ones in OpenOffice.

The open-source suite needs more third-party interoperability to "go to the next level," Collins said. "That's the bottom line."

WordPerfect's core markets are in the legal industry and among government agencies and small businesses, according to a Corel spokesman.

"Hands down, WordPerfect is a superior piece of software to Microsoft Word," said Jay Lenrow, an attorney at Lenrow, Kohn & Oliver. Features such as a function that lets users see all the formatting code in a legal document are especially useful, he said.

Lenrow's firm uses Word to meet occasional requests from clients for documents created with that application. But although Lenrow said he can easily move WordPerfect documents into Word, he sometimes has problems opening Word documents in WordPerfect, which makes him suspicious that Microsoft is deliberately ensuring that the two products aren't compatible.

Novell filed the WordPerfect-related lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Utah. The company built its case around findings made in the U.S. government's antitrust suit against Microsoft and is seeking unspecified damages as compensation for the alleged business harm caused by Microsoft.

Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, said during a teleconference that Novell's WordPerfect claims have no merit and that Microsoft is prepared to resolve the dispute in court.

Microsoft and Novell agreed to settle a separate antitrust suit related to Novell's NetWare operating system business, one of two settlement deals announced by Microsoft last week.

Joseph LaSala Jr., Novell's general counsel, said in a statement that the two companies had "extensive discussions" about resolving the WordPerfect claims. But he added that they "were unable to agree on acceptable terms."

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